The Millionaire Reformer

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This use of widespread advertising for political purposes was a new thing. Perkins, the trade paper Editor and Publisher commented in 1915, had “uncovered the 42-centimeter gun that from now on must be considered the master of the situation when it comes to carrying the redoubts of public opinion.” In all his political activities, as earlier in business, he was noted for boldness, imagination, and a willingness to use new and unconventional methods. When battling to keep down New York food prices in 1917, he discovered that there was a great run of smelts on the Pacific coast and bought over 100,000 pounds at four cents a pound. These he shipped to New York and sold to retailers at four and a half cents, on condition that they sell them to the public for not more than six. At that moment, Atlantic coast smelts were selling at about eighteen cents a pound.

The Great War affected Perkins profoundly, although not really until it was all over. Like any public-spirited citizen he worked hard during the conflict—at his Food Committee job and in raising money for the Y.M.C.A. But two events in late 1918 hit him with staggering force. One was the death of his son’s young wife in the flu epidemic. The other was an investigation he made of Y.M.C.A. activities overseas right after the Armistice. His experiences in France and Germany broadened and tempered his Progressivism. When first he saw the devastated areas of France he had seethed with rage against the Germans. But anger and revenge were futile in the face of so much misery and destruction.

When he stepped off the boat on his return to America, he told reporters that economic reconstruction seemed far more urgent than political. They asked him about the menace of Russian communism, and he said: “I don’t know what to say about Bolshevism in Europe. There are deep-seated troubles there. In Paris … people are paying $1 apiece for apples, and $3 a pound for butter.” When asked if, by feeding Russians and Germans, the Allies were not “nursing a viper in the breast,” he replied: “How are we going to cut out any one group of people?”

Realizing that the world was at a great turning point, Perkins searched hard for the path that “the man of the future” should take through the morass of postwar readjustment. There was much labor unrest; a bitter strike was convulsing the steel industry; and angry radicals were talking of sweeping changes in the order of things. “The questions that took me out of the banking business,” Perkins wrote his old friend Albert J. Beveridge, “are now coming to a head.” In December, 1919, in a lecture at Columbia University, he argued that the politicians of the future must “so frame our laws as to permit co-operative effort … conducted under proper regulation and control.”

Where national politics was concerned, Perkins was moved by the same vague and somewhat authoritarian desire to get at fundamentals and by a conviction that intense partisanship was out of place in modern society. When one politician suggested to him that the trend was running so strongly toward the Republicans that they could elect a “yellow dog” President in 1920, he replied by asking him icily “what use … a yellow dog would be to our country and the world at large in the handling of the momentous questions presenting themselves at this time.” And he lectured Senator Reed Smoot of Utah about the importance of “constructive thought” and the futility of “hot-air speeches.”

Such words had little effect on Smoot and the other leaders of the Republican party, who were then not at all interested in Perkins’ ideas about “proper regulation and control” of the economy. They gave the country Warren G. Harding and “normalcy.” But Perkins did not live to see what followed, for his health failed rapidly in the spring of 1920, and in June he died, victim of acute encephalitis complicated by a heart condition.

George Perkins had brains, money, enthusiasm, self confidence, and faith in the cause of reform. Even his enemies acknowledged his winning nature, his sincerity, his vivacity. “Anyone who knows him cannot help liking him,” his relentless foe Amos Pinchot confessed. Why then did he fail at reform? In part, the prejudices of lesser men undid him: they called him a tool of the “interests.” “If I had built a hospital “ or endowed a library with the money I spent,” he told one critic toward the end of his career, “many people would have risen up and called me blessed...I prefer to spend what money I am able in advancing measures that I believe are thoroughly in the public interest, and I intend to pursue this course.”

But Perkins was also partially responsible for his own failure. He was too headstrong to be successful in politics. His decisiveness and his dedication often led him to ignore others. When called to account, he liked to reply that every business must have a single head, and he could cite examples from his experience in industry to prove his point. The real nature of political democracy still escaped him: this was the paradox of Perkins’ life. He believed that progress depended upon men learning to work together, but he could not work in harness with others at the task of making a better world.

*The charges were later dismissed in a federal court after the politicking was over.

**In this election, the Socialist Eugene V. Debs received about 900,000 votes, the highest percentage of the total vote that party ever won.