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Punishing the Guilty without Admitting the Guilt

THE dismissal of Harry Daugherty and the disheartening final correspondence between him and President Coolidge brings to an appropriately mean and equivocal end one of the most discreditable episodes in American political annals. It was discreditable in every respect and to all its protagonists––to the President who appointed Daugherty, to the Senate which confirmed him, to the colleagues who sat in the Cabinet with him, to the Republican party leaders who tolerated and for a while protected him and to the other President who for so many painful weeks could not summon courage either to dismiss or defend him. Daugherty defiled everybody with whom he came into contact. Yet, as we are bound sorrowfully to add, his associates in the Republican party and the administration carried their repellent burden without any premature signs of distress. They put up bravely with the disagreeable odor that was given out by the performances of Daugherty and his friends until the stench proved impossible.

When Daugherty was originally selected, his unfitness was notorious and abominable. The New Republic characterized his appointment and that of Fall as “unspeakably bad” and accused them both of being “full-blown specimens of the manipulating politician who serves private and special interests” and the facts which justified this judgment as an understatement were matters of common knowledge. Yet the Republican leaders accepted Mr. Daugherty without any admissions of discomfort, and until recently they not only shut their eyes and held their noses to what the Attorney-General and his gang were doing but entered into something like a conspiracy to prevent the news of it from leaking out. They all seemed instinctively to know what under the circumstances their duty was to the great Republican party. After having nominated and elected a candidate for the presidency whose closest political associate and confidential manager was a man like Daugherty, they could not afford to be squeamish about malodorous meals which their official cooks subsequently prepared for their consumption.

For nearly three years they stuck to their resolution in spite of every apparent provocation to disgust and revolt. The testimony which Senator Wheeler’s committee has unearthed proves to the satisfaction of any reasonable person the existence in and around the Department of Justice and in most intimate association with the Attorney General of a group of crooks who sold in one form or another privileges to violate the law. There must have been hundreds of upright men occupying important positions in the administration, in Congress or in private business who knew in general what was going on and who deliberately suppressed the knowledge. They preferred to set as accessories to a flagrant betrayal of public confidence rather than incur the consequences to themselves and their party of participating in a public scandal and exposure. They had a perfectly good opportunity of allowing the facts to come out and of repudiating Daugherty when his impeachment was proposed over a year ago. Instead of which they rallied unanimously to his support, refused to allow any investigation to take place, and browbeat into discouraged silence the Congressman who proposed impeachment. By this behavior the responsible leaders of the Republican party in Congress and in the administration assumed a positive as well as a negative responsibility for the presence of Daugherty and his crooked associates in the law-enforcing department of the federal government.

When, finally, owing to the exposure of Fall, the scandal became too notorious for further concealment, Republican leaders found themselves entangled in an awkward predicament. They realized all too well the impossibility of defending the record of Daugherty as Attorney-General. Neither, under the circumstances, could they forbid an investigation. Yet the consequences of an investigation, as they well knew, would be fatal to Daugherty, embarrassing to the administration and compromising to themselves. The facts had to come out and Daugherty had to go; but at the same time they could not afford to admit that he was as grotesquely unfit to serve as Attorney-General as the exposures indicated. A frank admission to that effect would prove to be an impossible burden to carry during the coming presidential election, and would place all the Republican candidates in a defensive, apologetic and even a humiliating position before the public. Embarrassing as this predicament was, the faced it with a kind of brazen courage. The least costly way out was not to defend Daugherty, and, indeed, actually to throw him out, but at the same time not to admit the truth of the charges against him. Those charges they could condemn as uncorroborated rumors which unscrupulous political opponents were passing on to hysterical and credulous people for the purpose of assassinating the characters of faithful Republicans and defeating Mr. Coolidge for reëlection. By this tortuous method they planned both to get rid of Daugherty and to discredit his opponents. They hoped to protect themselves without assuming the burden of defending Daugherty.

The difficult task of converting the contradictory necessities of the Republican predicament into a plausible policy devolved on poor Mr. Coolidge. He has gone through with it, but he has put up a sorry appearance. Although one of the most faithful purveyors of moral platitudes in these United States, he, like other Republicans, had silently acquiesced in the great betrayal of public confidence. He must have known the kind of man Daugherty was, the character of his cronies and the sort of things they were doing in the Department of Justice. The President’s own intimacy with McLean should have sufficed to enlighten him. But even if by any chance he did not know as Vice-President what had been going on, it was certainly his business to find out soon after he became President. He undoubtedly did find out. The deadly accuracy of his knowledge is revealed by his obvious eagerness to get rid of Daugherty. Yet in spite of what must have been full information about what had been going on in the Department of Justice, the President deliberately assumed in public the innocence of his Attorney-General and hesitated for months to demand the inevitable resignation; and when finally he did jump the hurdle he pretended to the American public that Daugherty still enjoyed the presumption of innocence. His behavior was a contemptible exhibition of subterfuge and disingenuousness which Daugherty was fully justified in stigmatizing as cowardly.

The President’s letter dismissing his Attorney-General is a depressing revelation of his mental obliquity. Mr. Coolidge still does not budge from the official attitude. He gives no sign of possessing any sufficient reason to consider Daugherty guilty of behavior which calls for the Attorney-General’s resignation. Indeed he refers to Daugherty in words which will to many simple Americans seem like an exoneration and which Daugherty interprets and welcomes as such. On his own showing he has, consequently, every reason to stand by his Attorney-General. Nevertheless he demanded Daugherty’s resignation on a purely technical pretext and so brought about by equivocation a convenient result which he did not dare to bring about frankly and loyally.

This method of extracting an ulcerated political tooth without admitting the existence of the ulcer is bound to be demoralizing to American public opinion. It justifies the utmost cynicism and disillusionment on the part of the increasing number of people who consider that complicity in corruption and hypocrisy is a fundamental fact in American politics and economics of today. The  Fall and Daugherty scandals offered Mr. Coolidge a rare opportunity of repairing the moral damage the American nation had suffered as a consequence of Harding’s nomination and election. He could by swift, uncompromising, energetic and candid action in exposing the offences and repudiating the offenders have assumed the leadership of those Republicans who would like to see the party reform itself, and he would have won the respect and confidence of his disinterested political opponents. Above all he would have convinced the American people that they are right to place confidence in their government and their rulers. He would have proved that while important public officials might sometimes betray their trust, the government as a whole would react violently in favor of rectitude as soon as its aberration was exposed. He has wholly neglected this opportunity. Throughout the entire episode Mr. Coolidge has done nothing to assist in the exposure of the miscreants and he has said nothing which expressed indignation and scorn at their malefaction and treachery. He has on the contrary done and said what he could to obscure the moral issue. He has used the prodigious influence of his office to prevent the American people from realizing the full enormity of the offence against the credit of the American nation and the trustworthiness of the American government which Daugherty and his crowd with the connivance of so many of his party associates had perpetrated. 

The profoundly sinister aspect of this matter is not the fact of the corruption but that so many of the party associates of the malefactors first connived at the offence and then, when the exposure came, deliberately tried to deceive their fellow countrymen as to its meaning. The leading Republican politicians, business men and newspapers have used the exposures chiefly as an excuse, not for condemning the miscreants and undoing their work, but for blackguarding the men who insisted on the exposure. In effect they served notice on anybody who proposed to lay bare corruption in high places that he himself would be shadowed by detectives, bullied and denounced as a malicious slanderer or a hysterical fool. Their attitude is comprehensible only on the hypothesis which the New Republic has persistently urged. The corruption which took place under Harding is not a matter of the aberration of individuals. It flourished as the result of the negative or positive complicity of hundreds of respectable accomplices who vouched for these miscreants to the public and are careful either not to know what is going on behind the screen or to conceal their knowledge. Such is the sad truth about the treason to their fellow-countrymen of both Fall and Daugherty. The people who knew the worst or who proposed to conceal knowledge of it both from themselves and other people are now laboring hard to produce an alibi and to try to prove that the real culprits are the investigators. They will not get away with such an absurdity, but if they do not, it will not be the fault of the press. With a few exceptions the most powerful newspapers in the country have done what they could to assist the Republican leaders in preventing the discreditable revelations from coming out and in falsifying their meaning for the American public.

This article appeared in the April 9, 1924 issue of the magazine.