Friday, May 27, 2011

What Does the Death of a Reclusive 104 Year Old Copper Heiress Have to Do With U.S. Senate Elections???

Every once in a while you come across a truly wild and fascinating story that seems to defy belief.  Even better, sometimes these tales have embedded within them some obscure bit of political trivia.  The death of 104 year old Huguette Clark, a long reclusive heir to a massive copper and timber fortune, is filled with the stuff of legend.  As the coverage has discussed, Clark's assets were not only massive, but largely unused.  Last photographed in 1930 (!!!) Clark had lived the last several decades of her life secluded in a variety of New York City hospitals, reportedly surrounded only by her doll collection.  With no direct heirs and few, if any it seems, personal friends or confidants there is very little information about her that might shed light onto her strangely interesting life.

So why am I writing about this?  Well, it turns out that Clark is a direct link to the politics of a bygone American era.  I've always found the Gilded Age to be probably the most interesting period of our political history.  While the post Civil War period is not known for its stellar presidents (although I do admire Grant), the times saw the massive growth of American industry and the rise of such titans as Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and the like.  The politics that developed around and in reaction to this transformation of America was raw, crass, and rough and tumble.  The country was moving westward at a fast clip with a population boom to match.  Industrialization, urbanization, and immigration fueled the birth of modern America...and a lot of people got rich.  The consequences of this unbridled expansion led to a number of policies and movements that are still with us to this day--think Progressivism, the birth of the regulatory state, etc.

This is where Clark comes in.  Her father, Willam A. Clark, was an industrial heavyweight on par with the greats of his time.  Making his fortune in the copper mines and timber fields of the American west, Clark used his millions to try and build political influence and gain elective office.  He bought newspapers and banking interests to further promote his interests.  He was instrumental in the development of Montana and was also an early booster in Nevada.  Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, is named after him.

It was his blatant attempts to parlay his fortune into a Senate seat from Montana that brought him some degree of notoriety.  Remember that until the passage of the 17th Amendment, senators were chosen by state legislatures, not direct election.  The backroom dealings that could lead to such appointments invited all types of corrupt behavior.  Clark's original campaign for the Senate was derailed in 1899 when it was revealed that he engaged in blatant bribery of the legislature.  Nonetheless, he succeeded in capturing the seat two years later and served a single term from 1901 to 1907.  With the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, such decisions were finally put in the hands of voters.  For those who fret about the corrupting role of money in our politics and elections, it's useful to remember just how much better the current system is than the one that preceded it.

It's not often that we get to establish a direct linkage with such distant eras of our society and politics.  While Clark herself didn't directly allow for this, her death does send us back to the time of robber barons and their Gilded Age fortunes.  As her father was quoted as saying, "I never bought a man who wasn't for sale."