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Republic Of Leaks
Americans have been invading one another’s privacy for political gain since before the Revolution
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
In 1867 Rep. Oakes Ames of Massachusetts wrote a series of letters to a crony named Henry S. McComb. Both men were backers of the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad, and the letters detailed Ames’s plans to buy support for the line in Congress. When their business arrangement turned sour, McComb sued Ames and introduced his letters as evidence. In the heat of the 1872 presidential campaign, they were made public. A halfhearted congressional inquiry fingered Ames and Rep. James Brooks of New York, both of whom died from the strain in 1873. Many other congressional leaders were implicated but managed to recover, including Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio, who later became President. The biggest casualty besides Ames and Brooks was Vice President Schuyler Colfax, whose political career was ruined—no great loss, to judge by other nineteenth-century Vice Presidents.
In December 1897 Enrique Dupuy de Lome, the Spanish minister to Washington, wrote informally to a friend about the rebellion in Cuba and the possibility of war with the United States. In his letter the minister called President William McKinley a politicastro (bushleague politician) and spoke vaguely of spreading pro-Spanish propaganda in Congress. Early in 1898 a rebel sympathizer employed by the recipient stole de Lome’s letter, which was soon published in America’s newspapers, further inflaming a bellicose national mood. De Lome resigned before the United States could demand his withdrawal, leading one American editor to lament that an “experienced diplomat” had been “brought low by a petty thief.” A few days later the Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, eclipsing the de Lôme controversy.
It’s a safe bet that the public’s concern with privacy will vary inversely with how juicy the revelations are.
In the 1930s Whittaker Chambers was a journalist and a Soviet secret agent. One of his contacts was Alger Hiss, a rising star in the U.S. State Department. In 1938 Chambers became disillusioned with Communism and left the party, keeping microfilm of correspondence and documents Hiss had sent him. Ten years later he showed the microfilm (which he had hidden in a pumpkin on his farm) to Richard Nixon, a first-term congressman who was investigating Soviet espionage. In testimony before Nixon’s committee, Hiss denied writing the letters or knowing Chambers, leading to his conviction for perjury in 1950. Nixon parlayed his triumph into a Senate seat, a slot as Dwight Elsenhower’s running mate, and eventually the Presidency. By that time, regrettably for him, he had forgotten what he learned from Hiss and Chambers about the dangers of preserving incriminating evidence.
Still, it should not be assumed that American history is an unbroken succession of sneaks and flatfoots poking through each other’s desk drawers and rushing off to the newspapers. In 1940, for example, Republicans obtained copies of letters from Henry Wallace, the Democratic candidate for Vice President, to a flaky guru and mystic named Nicholas Roerich. In the letters, written in 1933 and 1934, Wallace (then Secretary of Agriculture) fawningly solicited the guru’s blessings, invented nasty names for his cabinet colleagues, and indulged in such mush as: “Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from the other world which is the real world.”
After a good deal of controversy with his fellow bosses, the Republican national chairman, Joseph W. Martin, decided against publishing the letters. Privacy was the least of his considerations. Martin worried that it would come across as a smear, while others feared retaliatory leaks about Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate, and his barely concealed affair with a long-time mistress.
Much more decisive action was taken by Grover Cleveland during the presidential campaign of 1884. One day someone brought him a packet of evidence detailing misconduct by his opponent, James G. Blaine. Cleveland needed campaign ammunition because stories were circulating about an illegitimate child he had supposedly fathered ten years before. When offered the documents, Cleveland handed over the asking price, inquired, “Are all the papers here?,” then tore them to pieces and burned them. “The other side can have a monopoly of all the dirt in this campaign,” he reportedly said. Moralists will surely regret, though historians must be thankful, that more Americans before and since have not followed Cleveland’s example.