The Public Humiliation of Ralph Owen Brewster
When Time magazine asked actor Alan Alda in December 2004 to describe the character he plays in The Aviator, a film about billionaire Howard Hughes' aviation career, Alda answered with a single word, "Ruthless." No, Alda does not play the eccentric Howard Hughes; that role went to baby-faced heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Alan Alda portrays U.S. senator from Maine Ralph Owen Brewster, the powerful chairman of the Senate War Investigating Committee and Hughes' real-life and on-screen nemesis.
Ralph Owen Brewster (1888-1961) was a political contemporary and one-time protégé of Governor Percival P. Baxter (1876-1969), but even though Brewster ascended the national stage denied Baxter, he is far less well-known today than Baxter. Baxter's name lives on in his great and farsighted philanthropies, while Brewster seems to have spent his political capital in ways that guaranteed he would be one of history's losers.
When Brewster died in 1961, the Portland Press Herald announced the news "Ex-Sen. Brewster, Twice Maine Governor, Dies at 73" with a subhead that added, "Republican Leader Had Stormy Political Career."
Stormy, indeed. Owen Brewster (he dropped his first name in favor of his middle one in 1943) assumed the governorship following a highly disputed primary election recount, carried on a personal feud with Howard Hughes before a national television audience, was investigated for making a questionable contribution to the senatorial campaign of Richard M. Nixon, was named in an infamous Maine liquor scandal, and sided with the notorious Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Curiously, the Press Herald report of his death made no mention of the most damning charge against Brewster - that he was the Ku Klux Klan candidate for governor in 1924.
May Craig, Maine's legendary, mad-hatted Washington correspondent (Down East, August 1998), assumed the role of sympathetic apologist in her posthumous assessment of Brewster's career. "He was a consummate politician, one of the most alert minds, one of the most able men this correspondent for the Gannett papers has known in Washington," wrote May Craig, though she also allowed that Brewster was "one of the most colorful, controversial figures ever on the Washington platform."
Ralph Owen Brewster was born in 1888 in Dexter, where his father, William E. Brewster, owned the grocery store and served as president of two local banks. After graduating from Bowdoin College (1909) and Harvard Law School (1913), Brewster set up his law practice in Portland and entered political life modestly enough as a member of the Portland School Committee from 1915 to 1923. He also served in the Maine House of Representatives from 1917 to 1918 and again from 1921 to 1923 and in the Maine Senate from 1923 to 1925, during which time he was a key ally of Governor Percival Baxter in the fight to keep Maine waterpower from being exported out-of-state.
Brewster and Baxter had their great falling out in 1924, the year Brewster sought to succeed Baxter as governor. Brewster's major campaign issue was a bill he had authored to prohibit the appropriation of public funds to sectarian and parochial schools, a measure that was widely regarded as anti-Catholic and, as such, had the backing of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine. Brewster had also authored the new city charter that changed Portland from a strong mayor to a council-manager form of government, a measure the Klan also supported.
In a January 17, 1924, speech in Old Orchard Beach, Brewster, who had not yet won the Republican gubernatorial nomination, answered the charge of his eventual Democratic opponent William R. Pattangall that Brewster was "the Klan candidate for governor of Maine."
"There is exactly as much truth in that charge as there was last September in the charge that the council-manager charter to be voted on in the City of Portland was a Klan charter or that the council ticket to be voted on in December was a Klan ticket," Brewster declared, adding as he would repeatedly during the campaign, "I am not a member of any secret organization nor have I sought the endorsement of any secret organization in my candidacy."
But as historian John Syrett, now living in Owls Head after retiring from Trent University in Ontario, wrote in the winter 2000-01 issue of Maine History, "While not a member of the Klan, Brewster consistently ignored pleas to condemn it."
One of those pleas came from Percival Baxter, an avowed foe of the Klan, which, by 1924, had as many as 20,000 members in Maine. In a March 25, 1924, letter to Brewster, Baxter wrote: "Dear Senator: I have heard it said that sometimes we should pray to be delivered from our friends. The enclosed copy of the Maine Klansman with the series of cartoons, in my opinion, is most unfortunate. I thought you ought to have it."
The crude political cartoon made it clear that the Klan was supporting Brewster, but Brewster refused to do anything to alienate the KKK.
When state Senator Frank Farrington appeared to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the June 16 primary by a mere 481 votes out of some 97,000 cast, Brewster requested a recount - piqued that his old friend Governor Baxter had even made him ask. The initial recount also showed Farrington to be the winner, but when ballot-stuffing was discovered in Portland's Ward Four, Percival Baxter took the unusual step of ordering a revote in that ward. The revote gave Brewster a 581-vote primary victory and he went on to handily beat William Pattangall in September.
"Residents of Maine may well have pulled a sheet over their faces," declared the Boston Telegram. "For the Republican Party has delivered the sovereign State of Maine over to the Ku Klux Klan."
In his analysis of the 1924 election, historian John Syrett concluded, "Brewster's clever use of the Klan to secure his nomination, against the wishes of the Republican organization, was as reprehensible as was the Klan's bigotry."
As governor of Maine from 1925 to 1929, Ralph Owen Brewster put the state in the economic development business by establishing the Maine Development Commission to attract industry and tourism. He also took the magnanimous step of appointing his former Democratic opponent William Pattangall to the Maine Superior Court.
Following his two terms as governor, Brewster ran into a series of political setbacks, twice failing to win the GOP nomination to run for the U.S. Senate. He then moved back to Dexter in hopes of winning a seat in Congress, but he was defeated on his first try in 1932. Finally, in 1934, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1935 to 1941, and subsequently served in the U.S. Senate from 1941 until 1952.
in Washington, Brewster became a close friend of his next-door neighbor, Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. When he joined Truman in the Senate in 1941, Brewster served on Truman's watchdog committee charged with overseeing war expenditures.
"Truman got along very well with a lot of Republicans, and a fellow senator from a small-town, rural background would have appealed to him," says historian and Camden resident David McCullough, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman.
David McCullough, in fact, met former Senator Brewster during Christmas 1954 while honeymooning in Nassau, Bahamas. Despite their political differences, says McCullough, Truman wouldn't have had any reason not to like Owen Brewster. "He couldn't have been nicer," says McCullough. "I liked him. I liked him a lot."
The idea of a straight-shooting Democrat like Harry Truman socializing with a controversial Republican like Owen Brewster may strike some as off or out of character, but David McCullough points out, "The problem with writing history is that you always see things backwards. You know how the Brewster story turned out."
In 1947, with Republicans controlling the U.S. Senate, Brewster became chair of the powerful Senate War Investigating Committee, a body set up to look into war expenditures under the Roosevelt Administration. The position afforded Brewster the national spotlight he had long desired but would very quickly regret.
In August 1947, Senator Brewster became the unwitting goat in a five-day Senate hearing that Newsweek described as "the biggest circus that had pitched its tent in Washington in years."
The ostensible purpose of the hearing was to look into $40 million worth of government contracts awarded to Howard Hughes for airplanes - including the infamous plywood Spruce Goose - that were never delivered. Further, the GOP investigators pointed the finger at FDR's son Elliot Roosevelt as the person responsible for helping Hughes secure the contracts. The wily Howard Hughes, however, turned the tables on Brewster, putting him on the defensive and forcing him to testify under oath before his own subcommittee.
As Senator Brewster himself explained, as he tried to clear his name the following year in the Congressional Record, "Mr. Hughes subsequently charged that at a luncheon on February 12 it had been proposed to him that the investigation would be dropped if Mr. Hughes would consent to a merger of Trans World Airlines with Pan American Airways. I trust it is not necessary for me to say to the Senate that the charge is absolutely false."
Brewster's critics had taken to calling him "the Senator from Pan Am" because of his close friendship with Pan Am president Juan Trippe. So when Brewster went after Howard Hughes, Hughes forced Brewster instead to defend himself against charges that he was in the airline's pocket, accepting free air travel, introducing legislation to benefit Pan Am, and, ultimately, offering to call off the Hughes investigation if Hughes would merge his Trans World Airlines with Pan Am.
A flustered Owen Brewster tried to defend himself, but when Howard Hughes insisted, "Senator Brewster's story is a pack of lies, and I can tear it apart if given the opportunity," the audience at the Senate hearing burst into cheers and applause.
Brewster alleged a political smear campaign aimed at discrediting him and derailing the Hughes investigation - which is pretty much exactly what happened. In a lengthy self-defense recorded in the 1948 Congressional Record, Brewster cited an anonymous "get Brewster" memo that reported statements allegedly made by Hughes' public relations man Charles MacVarish at a September 11, 1947, meeting.
"He said his firm was not too proud of the part it was obliged to play in this Brewster-Hughes affair," MacVarish was alleged in the memo to have said. MacVarish had known Brewster for twenty years and "his personal opinion of the senator, through all these years, was not too flattering." And Brewster left it at that in the Congressional Record, editing out the next sentences of the memo, which read, "He described the senator as being 'publicity crazy.' And that he had been the 'leak' on the Truman Committee, having often selected favorite reporters through whom to break exclusive stories and so antagonizing the other press representatives. He also said that Senator Brewster had been one of Juan Trippe's 'affidavit men' for a period of ten years."
If Senator Owen Brewster were publicity crazy, he got more than he bargained for before the glare of the television lights. When the hearings concluded, he slunk back to Maine humiliated and, as he puts it, "full of poisoned arrows that have been shot at me." Brewster's reputation never fully recovered from the Hughes affair and was subsequently tarnished further in 1952 during the final political campaign of his life.
"No question his reputation is very unfavorable," says present-day Farmington attorney and political analyst Paul Mills. But Mills rejects the notion that Brewster was a ruthless politician. "He was complicated and at times probably corrupt. But if the odor of corruption was that great, the people of Maine wouldn't have continued to elect him so many times."
Mills suggests that Brewster's downfall was taking on the media-savvy movie mogul Howard Hughes on national television: "What do you expect going up against a guy from Hollywood?"
Still, Owen Brewster might have salvaged more of his sullied reputation were it not for the unsavory alliance he made toward the end of his political career.
In 1950, while Senator Margaret Chase Smith was immortalizing herself by opposing the Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy in her famous "Declaration of Conscience" speech, Senator Brewster was throwing in his lot with McCarthy. When McCarthy branded muckraking columnist Drew Pearson, who had frequently attacked Brewster, as a Communist, Brewster had 75,000 copies of McCarthy's speech mailed to his constituents.
Then, in 1952, as Senator Brewster faced re-election, he was in the news again, this time trying to explain why he had given a check for $10,000 to a shady political operative named Henry "The Dutchman" Grunewald. Brewster said that, because as chair of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in 1950 he was prohibited from contributing to primary campaigns, he had given the money to Grunewald "as a sort of conduit" to help North Dakota Senator Milton Young and California Senator Richard Nixon in their primaries.
Historian and Baxter biographer Neil Rolde of York thinks Brewster's alliance with Nixon is instructive. "He's a very minor Richard M. Nixon: conniving, not very attractive, but somehow successful," says Rolde of Brewster. "There is a sneakiness there that eventually came back to haunt him."
in his final political campaign, Brewster faced stiff primary opposition from Governor Frederick Payne. Payne was an Eisenhower supporter, while Brewster backed conservative Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. The 1952 Maine GOP primary was marred by a nasty liquor scandal, focused on allegations that Governor Payne had been paid off to award favorable contracts to Fairview Wine Company. Payne denied the charge and believed that Brewster was behind the recent investigation. Brewster denied this, as well as allegations that surfaced during the investigation suggesting that he had offered money to the Massachusetts liquor dealer in exchange for damaging information about Payne.
The 1952 primary was also noteworthy for the fact that Howard Hughes allegedly took his final revenge on Brewster by pumping $60,000 into Governor Payne's campaign. If so, Payne said years later he knew nothing about it. Whatever the truth might be, Frederick Payne did win the primary, handing Owen Brewster the dubious distinction of being the only incumbent U.S. senator from Maine ever to fail to win renomination.
Ultimately, Ralph Owen Brewster's ambitions took him close to the centers of power but left him in the graveyard of political history. In hindsight, he might have done well to listen to his old mentor Percy Baxter when Baxter urged him to repudiate the KKK, for crossing Baxter and ignoring his advice was when Brewster first crossed the line from principle to expediency.
The enmity between Baxter and Brewster never subsided thereafter. In 1933, Baxter arranged to have Governor's Spring in Baxter State Park changed to Thoreau Spring, knowing full well that Governor's Spring was so-named to commemorate Governor Brewster's ascent of Katahdin. Four years later, in 1937, Brewster attempted to exact his revenge by sponsoring a bill in Congress that would have turned Baxter State Park into Katahdin National Park.
Percival Baxter's chauffeur Joseph Lee liked to tell the story - regarded as apocryphal by some and as gospel by others - of how Governor Baxter, following Brewster's death, ordered his driver to detour through Dexter one day on a drive back to Portland from Baxter State Park. The Cadillac pulled into Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Brewster is buried, and Baxter got out and walked to the grave. When the chauffeur asked Baxter whether he had finally made peace with his old enemy, Baxter is supposed to have answered, "No, I just wanted to be sure the S.O.B. was really dead."