Hearst’s Little Time Bomb

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In novels, movies, and television melodramas, money and power often are treated as if they were two sides of a single coin. In life, they are different currencies, and the effort to convert one into the other has produced some amazing tangles. I know of no better example than an all-but-forgotten scandal that involved a man who could buy everything he ever wanted —except the power that he wanted more than anything.

 

In the winter of 1904-5, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst acquired some unusual letters. The letters had been written by John D. Archbold, vice-president of the Standard Oil Company, to various state and federal officials.

Hearst had been attacking America’s trusts for years. Archbold’s letters to Sen. Joseph Benson Foraker, an Ohio Republican, especially interested him.

February 16, 1900

My Dear Senator: Here is still another very objectionable bill. It is so outrageous as to be ridiculous, but it needs to be looked after, and I hope there will be no difficulty in killing it.

March 26, 1900

Dear Senator: In accordance with our understanding, I now beg to enclose you certificate of deposit to your favor for $15,000.

April 17, 1900

My Dear Senator: I enclose you certificate of deposit to your favor for $15,000. … I need scarcely again express our great gratification over the favorable outcome of affairs.

Though he retained the title of president, John D. Rockefeller had withdrawn from active management of the Standard Oil Company in 1897. Archbold now directed the day-to-day operation of the company. His letters to Senator Foraker give a fair idea of his methods.

The way that he acquired Archbold’s letters gives a fair idea of Hearst’s methods. Archbold employed as an office boy a young man named Willie Winfield (or possibly Winkfield), who got the idea that he might move up in the world by selling letters written by his employer. An editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World declined the offer. An editor of Hearst’s New York American gave Winfield and an associate a list of two hundred men whose correspondence with Archbold might interest the newspaper.

From December 1904 through February 1905, Winfield searched his employer’s files. Letters that looked promising were brought to the office of the American and shown to a pair of Hearst’s editors, then returned to Archbold’s files after being photographed. In all, according to later reports, Hearst paid between twelve and thirty-four thousand dollars for these services.

Readers who are familiar with Hearst’s career may suppose that they can predict what will happen next. Hearst will publish the letters in the most sensational possible manner, oceans of news ink will spill, circulation will soar, and the public will be treated to an orgy of editorial indignation.

In fact, none of this happened—not at once. Circulation mattered immensely to Hearst, but power mattered even more. Archbold’s letters put the publisher in the position of a terrorist who has obtained a supply of dynamite and who must decide exactly when and where he wants to use it.

Like many men who inherit great wealth, Hearst never cared much about money. His publishing empire was built upon the solid foundation of his father's substantial holdings in the richest gold, silver, and copper mines in the United States.

George Hearst had acquired a newspaper, the San Francisco Daily Examiner, in 1880 and had reluctantly given it to his son in 1887, after the young man rejected his suggestion that he run one of the family ranches or mines. “There’s only one thing that’s sure about my boy Bill.” George Hearst said later. “When he wants cake, he wants cake, and he wants it now. And I notice that after a while he gets the cake.”

When he bought the Archbold letters, what William Randolph Hearst wanted was political power. He had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1903 and had received considerable support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904. If he did not publish Archbold’s letters as soon as he purchased them in 1905, it was because he wanted to hold them in reserve for the one purpose that he cherished more than selling newspapers: his own pursuit of the Presidency.

With his eye on 1908, Hearst chose not to use the Archbold letters in 1905, when, running on an anti-Tammany Hall ticket, he came within three thousand votes of being elected mayor of New York City, or in 1906, when, having turned to Tammany for support, he lost to Charles Evans Hughes in the race for governor of New York.

With the loss of that gubernatorial election, the position that Hearst had sought as a stepping-stone to the Presidency slipped from beneath his feet. It seemed that in 1908 he would have to watch quietly while other men vied for the only prize that could satisfy his colossal ego.

Hearst was a man of many talents, but watching quietly was not one of them. In the words of his biographer W. A. Swanberg, “He had an incurable weakness for the ‘big splash.’ ” Possession of the Archbold letters gave him the opportunity to indulge that weakness.