Noted here the few pre-Packwood Senate...

*TC LAST MONDAY I

November 08, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

*TC LAST MONDAY I noted here the few pre-Packwood Senate diarists: William Maclay, John Quincy Adams, Henry Fountain Ashurst and George Aiken.

How could I have forgotten the most notorious Senate diary-keeper of all time? I mean Mel Ashton.

"United States Senator Melvin G. Ashton" -- as he always answered the phone -- was a long-time party hack who was elected to the Senate in the 1940s. He was a pompous, elderly dope of the sort who would spell "potato" with an "e." He had white flowing hair and full mustache. He liked young women, but he was more gallant than grabby.

He was so dumb that once a newspaper reporter threatened an aide, "I'm going to quote him accurately," and the aide replied, "That's dirty journalism, and you know it!" Ashton's prize piece of legislation would have required all letters to be written on tissue paper, to ease the burden on mailmen.

But Senator Ashton was as shrewd as he was dumb. He noticed things, and he recorded them. "There's an old saying in my state," he once explained. "If you can't beat 'em, bribe 'em." When party leaders ridiculed his desire to run for president, he sprung it on them.

"It's good that I've kept such a complete record of certain events in this diary," he said. "I put everything in it."

"Not everything?" said the party's top behind-the-scenes boss.

"Every single thing."

"Like Boston?"

"Like Boston."

"Like Denver?"

"Detailed."

So the party insiders agreed to his presidential ambitions. His campaign revealed his ridiculousness. He came out against assassination. The first plank in his platform was "Get me in the White House." At one rally he displayed a poster that said

ASHTON

Is

Against Inflation

Against Deflation

For Flation

I am not kidding. I am not making this up. Oddly, Ashton's campaign began to gather steam. Then his top aide stole the diary and gave it to his newspaper reporter girlfriend. She printed it. The senator fled the country, along with many of his party colleagues.

* * * *

I'm talking literature, not history. That's a summary of the 1948 movie, "The Senator Was Indiscreet." Charles MacArthur wrote it (based on a magazine story by Edwin Lanham). Nunnally Johnson produced it. George S. Kaufman directed it. William Powell was the senator. Ray Collins was the boss. Peter Lind Hayes was the aide. Ella Raines was the reporter. All are great.

MacArthur and Kaufman couldn't make up their minds whether they wanted farce or satire -- so settled for a movie that's half and half. And it's wonderful, especially when watched against the backdrop of today's politics.

It's available on video cassette. Theo says, check it out!

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