FOR HELL AND A BROWN MULE: THE BIOGRAPHY OF MILLARD TYDINGS. By Caroline H. Keith. Madison Books. 525 pages. $35.
MILLARD TYDINGS was belligerent, imaginative, short-tempered, witty and vain. To put it another way, Millard Tydings was introspective, artistic, brooding, humorless and a loner. Either way or maybe it's both (or many) ways, this venerable old battler furnished Maryland its all-time model of a first-class member of the United States Senate. He was, very simply, a proud Maryland ornament.
Look at the record:
Tydings held a Senate seat longer than any Marylander before or since, wrestling all challengers to the floor until the last disastrous fall -- his own.
He jousted, and won, against the most irresistible political force this nation has ever known, Franklin Roosevelt.
He was ambushed, and defeated, by the political nemesis of this century, Joseph McCarthy.
Between such skirmishes -- and Tydings was seldom without political combat -- he entertained a serious flirtation with a run for the White House itself.
These provide Caroline H. Keith's biography, "For Hell and a Brown Mule," its flash points. But there was philosophy too: If Tydings fairly can be called obsolescent, he nevertheless staked out and then defended the Democratic Party's shrinking conservative turf against the New Deal's more fashionable liberalism. The author suspects this was his most memorable work but does not dwell tiresomely on it.
What she does is skillfully sketch Tydings in all his contradictory, fascinating colors. Her portrait-like book hands up to us who knew him a man as recognizable in print as he ever was in the flesh. He re-emerges erect and chinny, standing up there against his swirling historical background of bloody heroism as a World War I machine-gunner, then of parochial struggles among Maryland's venomous political bosslets, finally of acknowledged personal leadership through the political hurricanes that tore at Washington in the decades just before and after World War II.
Combat scenes in France of 1918 come vividly alive; most are drawn from Tydings' own surprisingly eloquent records. His painstaking struggle to provide the Philippines with their own constitution and independence suggests the depth of his convictions; politically, there was nothing in it for him. He devoted a political lifetime to economy in government. He worked his way through college. His fight against Roosevelt's Supreme Court packing brought him national acclaim.
This was not an easy man. Creative, yes, and astringently clean. Compromise and the soft way out did not appeal to him. Principle and fairness did. It was while fiercely upholding the last two, ironically, that he succumbed to a political stab in the back by Joe McCarthy, a man he disdained as a senatorial reptile. Of all weird charges, it was an allegation of coddling communists on which Tydings, the very crown prince of Bourbon conservatives, was finally impaled.
Much of this is familiar stuff, but Keith excels in re-awakening some of the steamy old dramas in a new and cool perspective. She contrives a compelling blend of Tydings the public figure and Tydings the private man. This is particularly revealing when she salts in personal tidbits that reveal glimpses of a Tydings most of us, who thought we knew him, didn't know at all.
Who could guess that this natty statesman, redolent of aristocratic polish, grew up in Havre de Grace, the hard-scrabble son of a largely unschooled tugboat engineer working the Susquehanna river? How many knew that Tydings, deeply in love, spent the early 1920s writing passionate poems to a beautiful French communist, who then turned him down? He also wrote plays and painted.
Does anyone now remember the time Tydings got drunk at the legislature and publicly manhandled a prominent "dry," thereby provoking an uproar with the Anti-Saloon League?
The author suggests she had financial help from the Tydings family getting this book published, and there are some sugary touches. But she also kept "full authorial control" and plainly asserts it.
It seems petty to complain about the author's tin eye for names: Tommy D'Alesandro is "D'Alessandro" throughout and Wendell Willkie is "Wilkie," while Claude Swanson and Neil Swanson are confused. On all the important matters, though, Caroline Keith is sound as she is entertaining.
Bradford Jacobs, former political reporter and editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages, covered Tydings through much of the mid-century.