It is an interesting fact that, with three noteworthy exceptions, no man connected with the faction that subsequently fought Gov. La Follette so bitterly can put his finger on the specific act of the governor that first aroused his ire, or name the exact time when he concluded to paint his face, put feathers in his hair, and take to the warpath. Most of them were surprised when they first realized that they had left the reservation and were armed and equipped for battle. At the outset there was considerable interest, not of a hostile character, however, in the steps to be taken to fulfill the platform pledge with respect to primary elections. It was conceded that the pledge must be redeemed and it was supposed that all republicans would be given an opportunity to express their sentiments upon the subject. In his message the governor had explained his theories at considerable length, just as he had explained them in 1898 and on every possible occasion subsequent to that date, with the exception previously noted, during the preceding campaign. It had been the custom in the past for members to call at the executive chamber frequently for informal consultations and conferences on all subjects relating to legislation. The doors of the executive chamber always had been open during office hours, and frequently long into the night during legislative sessions, and visitors were welcomed and made to feel at home.
But conditions were changed now. As the days passed it was noticed that an air of mystery was beginning to gather about the capitol building. Men were called to the executive chamber for conferences, it is true, but they were carefully selected from among their fellows and the consultations were always held behind closed, guarded doors. They were star chamber sessions of the most secret kind. Newspaper correspondents who had had the run of the anteroom of the executive apartments in past years were frozen out entirely or made to feel extremely uncomfortable while there. There was an indefinable something in the atmosphere of the outer executive office that made it impossible for certain visitors to penetrate far beyond the portals with any degree of ease.
Long before any attempt was made to organize a faction in opposition to the governor there was a faction organized and disciplined to carry out his program. His line of battle was formed to fight a foe not yet in existence; his generals, aids and lieutenants were appointed and entered upon the discharge of their duties. The atmosphere of mystery that at first enveloped the executive chamber only, spread to the entire capitol--legislative chambers, committee rooms, corridors, even the cloakrooms and closets. There were little gatherings where whispered consultations were held; there was evasion, suspicion, secrecy on every hand. Every employee in the state house that could be dragooned into the ranks was made a secret service agent in addition to performing his regular clerical duties. Two men would be talking in a corridor and a third would approach; instantly there would be warning glances exchanged and the two would separate, to be seen again a few minutes later continuing the conversation. A true blue administration supporter would shy at the coming of an outsider as if the intruder were afflicted with a contagious disease, for the servant of the executive feared he would be suspected of disloyalty should he be caught in friendly converse with one not yet in iniated into the sacred arcana and possessed of the countersign, grip and password.
All this may sound like a childish fairy tale to one who did not go through that experience, but it is the bald, literal truth nevertheless. Those who visited the state house at Madison during that memorable session either on business or pleasure bent, became conscious at once of the changed atmosphere, the oppressive psychic force with which the capitol was charged as with an electric current. It is this same force that has in the past, under conditions favorable to such results, brought about great religious revivals, panics, or lynchings, as the case might lie.
But although the situation described was enough to cause a dangerous tension, Gov. La Follette did not appear to appreciate that fact, if he is to be given credit for desiring to avoid a factional war. At all events, if his purpose was one in which peace and progress had a part, he displayed a lamentable lack of tact in dealing with members of the legislature. He did not appear to know how to treat with equals. He was wonderfully persuasive at times and his influence over some of his adherents had many of the characteristics of hypnotism. In no other way can be explained their consent to become involved in a political intrigue that would have been in place in a Latin American republic, but which was entirely foreign to Wisconsin methods.
When flattery and cajolery failed and the hypnotic spell would not work, it was the governor’s invariable custom to appeal to the cupidity or fear of the man he wished to influence. The frank, open manliness that should have characterized the intercourse of legislators with one another and with the executive and administrative department was wanting from the day the legislature convened. In place of reason there were plottings. In place of a free interchange of opinions there were lightfooted messengers hurrying about the capitol, mysterious messages delivered with nods and winks and sidelong glances, and star chamber sessions of "friends of the administration."
But Gov. La Follette did not always succeed in his efforts to influence even his friends and hold them in line for the full program prepared by himself. There were three men at least who knew when their attitude of friendliness toward the governor and prejudice in favor of his legislative program ceased. Each was called in turn to the executive chamber for an executive session. Each had ideas of his own which he had expressed freely without having first had them indorsed by the governor. They were brought "under the influence" which was expected to make them pliable and responsive to the word of command. When these men came away from the conferences there was blood in their eyes and their souls were congested with language it were a sin to repeat, or even think.
They made no secret of the fact that they had become insurgents--as they now would he called. The were all state senators and their naumies were O’Niel, Kreutzer, and Riordan.
The condition of public senthent on the primary election movement when the legislature convened in January, 1901, is clearly illustrated by the attitude of the newspapers of that day. As there was no division in the republican party, it will be conceded that the newspapers reflected the real sentiments of the people, so far as the people had been able to form opinions, and that they were not guided by factional prejudices. There had been considerable public discussion of the subject, it is true. In his message vetoing the Hagemeister bill four months later Gov. La Follette told what had been done to inform the voters relative to the merits of the primary election reform. He said:
Whatever was done was solely with the view of stimulating thought and argument of the measure upon its merits. From platform and pulpit, before agricultural societies, good government clubs, political clubs, debating societies, in the school houses and public hails, wherever men were gathered together, the dangers which threatened representative government were discussed, the causes plainly traced to the selection of candidates by the bosses, the vital importance of election by the people by direct vote, and the necessary provisions of a primary law were fully and fairly presented. The press of the state almost without exception gave the subject editorial treatment from time to time, while the leading periodicals and magazines of the country, widely read by our people, devoted much space to its consideration. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and addresses presenting every phase of the issue and meeting the arguments and objections of the opposition were distributed throughout the state. The entire matter was thoroughly well understood.But, granting that a persistent and energetic campaign had been waged in the interests of the movement, there was still a marked lack of enthusiasm manifested, and, so far as the newspapers were able to judge, a grave doubt existed of the ability of the legislature to invent a workable plan for putting the theoretical reform into practical operation. At all events, sentiment was not united in favor of the movement, as the governor appears to have believed.
Few of the leading newspapers in the state pretended to speak with authority on the subject. The Milwaukee Sentinel and Daily News were both unqualifiedly in favor of the governor’s plan of reforming the method of selecting candidates. The Sentinel was at that the the La Follette personal organ, its chief editorial writer, Jerre C. Murphy, having been appointed to the position of private secretary to the governor. The Daily News had, since 1896, been the leading "progressive" democratic paper of the state, and as such it supported the primary election movement from the beginning, although the democratic party had not consistently committed itself to that reform. In 1900 the democratic state platform contented itself with merely condemning the "present caucus law" as a "complicated and expensive nominating system," and favored a revision that would "result in a simple, direct, and inexpensive method of nominating candidates for office."
The Milwaukee Journal adopted a come—let—us—reason—together editorial tone that had all the appearance of suppressed hostility, which later developed into open antagonism. The Evening Wisconsin was noncommittal as to the primary election bill while all the the it was frankly and unmistakably friendly to the governor.
So far as the country press were concerned, there were a large number of the newspapers that did not take part in the discussion, their publishers being manifestly "on the fence," or unable to decide the matter to their own satisfaction. At that time the Milwaukee Journal was devoting considerable space to the country press, printing excerpts from editorials and commenting on them. In newspaper parlance, it was "featuring its state press column." On February 22, 1901, it compiled from that department a list of fifty-nine papers that had expressed opinions on the subject of the proposed primary election law. Of that number twenty-two were friendly to the bill and thirty-seven were opposed to it. Of those that favored the measure, two were independent, three were democratic, and seventeen were republican in sentiment. Of those opposed there were fifteen democratic, twenty—one republican, and one independent. There was at least one republican daily in the interior of the state that was opposed to the movement that does not appear in the Journal’s list.
One feature of the newspaper situation at the worthy of mention was the attitude of the Madison staff correspondents of the Evening Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Journal. The latter paper was represented at Madison by Ellis B. Usher, a gold democrat. The Evening Wisconsin's staff correspondent was Col. Dan. B. Starkey, late private secretary to Gov. Scofield. Both of these men were given considerable lattitude by their papers and they signed their letters. While the papers did not take a stand against the primary movement, both Usher and Starkey made no secret of their personal opposition to the attempt at reform legislation of that character. Col. Starkey, whose work always had been in the news department, naturally gave his letters the appearance of news reports, while Mr. Usher, a former publisher and editorial writer, followed the habit of years and wrote what may be called editorial news letters to his paper. Some of the strongest arguments ever printed against the primary election movement may be found in the letters written by Mr. Usher to the Milwaukee Journal during that memorable session of the legislature.
One of the most important events of the winter--the most important so far as relates to the newspaper situation--was the sale of The Milwaukee Sentinel in February. Up to that time The Sentinel had been owned and edited by ultra—La Follette supporters. By the change of ownership it became the property of Charles F. Pfister, who had been a neutral during the pre-convention period and a supporter of Gov. La Follette in the campaign for the election of the republican state ticket. The editorial announcing the change, written by the new editor in chief. Lansing Warren, indicated that The Sentinel would be a consistent, conservative, loyal republican paper under the new management.