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Gargantuan, gross, and cynical, the patrician boss Boies Penrose descended from aristocracy to dominate Pennsylvania Republican politics for thirty years
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
In the manipulation of votes, Penrose was less cavalier and less scrupulous; yet even here his enemies could not pin him down with evidences of fraud. Penrose proceeded from the assumption that proper and assiduous management would ensure that American voters would select that which was accustomed and patriotic. One day he was watching a military parade march along Broad Street in Philadelphia. A companion, carried away with enthusiasm, said something about the admirable nature of this spectacle. The spectacle, Penrose said, that excited his unbounded admiration and deepest emotion “is a well-drilled body of voters marching in perfect and obedient order to the polls.” Yet he was more than a master of getting out the vote. He also understood the importance of manipulating public opinion. In 1895 he and his ally, Pennsylvania Republican boss Matthew Stanley Quay, controlled much of the news reporting in the state through owning stock in a number of newspapers. Penrose consorted with reporters, played host to them, dropped them all kinds of hints. In this respect he was a twentieth-century politician, rather than a surviving nineteenthcentury one.
On the day of his first electoral triumph—and for some time afterward—the proper people were impressed. He was not impressed with them. He had concluded his treatise on Philadelphia ground rents with a scathing summary of the failure of the reform movement in Philadelphia. He read the manuscript before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania: it is not difficult to imagine the frozen faces of that distinguished audience, many of whom were members of the reform movement that this young lion in a den of Daniels dismissed in so many words. He had supported the reform charter for Philadelphia; but he was very skeptical of its results. The first mayor elected under the charter was a devout manufacturer, a bearded ropemaker named Edwin H. Fitler, who, Penrose said, was certain of the church vote “because he looks like a prosperous Apostle.” Reformers were “wateryeyed,” “pious fools.” Their substance was thin. Many of his political allies feared the reformers; Penrose had only contempt for them. They were hypocrites. They prided themselves on having opinions more exalted than those of the common man, which made them feel good. Even more than the corrupt politicians, they depended on the support of the wealthier classes. “To whom did the reformers go when they needed the money to finance their campaigns of blather?” Penrose asked. “To the wage earners? Not by a damn sight. They went to the capitalists, to great merchants and manufacturers who, as it happened, themselves yearned to be legislators and write laws.”
“There is more simplicity,” Chesterton wrote, “in a man who eats oysters on impulse than in a man who eats Grape-nuts on principle.” Penrose, who was a gargantuan devourer of oysters, the bigger the better, would have agreed. Yet his character was not simple. He had no scruples at all in presiding over the briberies spun out by his associates; he approved complicated plots whereby the latter would shortchange and defraud people through legislative legerdemain. His experience at law made him understand that even more important than the letter of the law was the procedure in the courts: he had his minions fix juries, occasionally studding them with reliable veniremen with prison records. He succeeded in halting the proceedings against one of his men who had committed vote fraud. Yet no one could ever prove that any one of his own election victories depended on fraud. He cultivated his contacts with courthouse politicians, rumpled men with owlish faces who carried pints of whisky in brown paper bags. Yet he kept an impeccable staff of secretaries, and turned over his entire senatorial salary to the chief one among them.
His mail was voluminous; he made sure that every letter addressed to him received a prompt answer; he declined to use the congressional franking privilege on his personal mail. He had, as we have seen, an excellent prose style; yet his speeches are not interesting to read, and his letters are no more so. He wrote nothing that could cause him any kind of embarrassment. He was supposed to have boasted that he never wrote a letter to a woman “that you couldn’t chill beer on.”
He was a superpatriot; yet when his bitter political opponent Progressive Robert La Follette was about to be expelled from the Senate because of his opposition to the war against Germany, Penrose said that he would have no part of it, and later pulled strings to quash the expulsion motion. Both before and after World War I, Penrose was an unreconstructed isolationist; yet during the war he simply and squarely proposed that there ought to be “a dreadnought for every state of the Union.” His mother had taken him to Europe during a Harvard vacation; after three weeks he asked to be allowed to return home. He was contemptuous of any kind of American involvement in the Old World; yet he was well versed in the classics. He was a collector of the first editions of travel books, of certain manuscripts, an amateur scholar of the history of explorations, and a voracious reader.
He was a genius at getting things done without working very hard. He knew how to delegate authority; his secretaries were tirelessly efficient. He was one of the first politicians to recognize the usefulness of the telephone as an instrument of instant, and unrecorded, contact; his bills ran to a thousand dollars or more a month. In 1914 his secretary persuaded him to purchase the large red Winton touring car which became his trademark. He found it to be a useful vehicle for visiting all the counties of the state.