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From Part One of  OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, The American Decades: America picks its next president...

 

By Friday, July 11, 1920, the seventeenth national convention of the Republican party had failed through eight rounds of balloting at the Chicago Coliseum to select a nominee for President of the United States. The two frontrunners were Illinois Governor and former Congressman Frank O. Lowden and General Leonard Wood, winner of the Medal of Honor for heroism against Geronimo, former White House physician, commander of Rough Riders and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Late on that steamy Chicago Friday night, partying and caucusing Republicans all over the city debated the deadlock. In an elegant modern French Beaux Arts lake-view suite high up in the Blackstone Hotel, Chicago's finest, Benchmark Oil held a soiree for the most elegant and famous Republicans. The host was the company's Chairman of the Board. The bill of fare was a simple buffet and, in deference to the "dry vote," there was no bar. The topic of the night was "Lowden or Wood?"

 

In an identical suite one floor up with a better lake view, also on the Benchmark account, a smaller group gathered. The host there was John Torrio and nothing was too good for his guests. Some were special Chicago people and some, those "in the know," had wandered up from the party below. Mayors and Congressmen, Governors and Senators, businessmen and powerbrokers came here, without their wives, to smoke the best tobacco, drink the best booze, play the fastest, highest stakes games of chance and fondle the most compliant, responsive beautiful women money could buy while they forgot the political bickering.

 

At a poker table in a quiet, cigar smoke- and aroma-permeated inner bedroom of the suite, over stakes far higher than the stacks of poker chips, four men studied the cards showing and those in their hands. Despite his protests to Torrio, Jacques Livingstone was this table's private host. Once he accepted his fate, Jacques could not help but smile at it. While three burly men in expensive suits watched, a short, pudgy bald man in a cheap suit held his cards pressed between the fingers and thumb of his left hand and flicked them with the first two fingers of his right while he studied them.

 

One of the three burly men, California oilman Edward L. Doheny, was old. His shaggy hair and thick, bottle-brush mustache were white. But behind rimless spectacles his blue eyes shone more vividly than any of the others. "Not Lowden OR the General."

 

"Exactly," said the youngest of the three, Oklahoma oilman Jake Hamon, a lean man with shaggy hair, a pale sagging face and hard knowing but weary eyes, like he has been too long at the party. 

 

"Come on, Ohio, bet or fold!" exhorted the biggest of the three, Harry Sinclair, his broad pale face, high forehead and thinning black hair framing his famous small laser-beady black eyes and wide scowling mouth.       

 

He was exhorting the small pudgy man in the shabby suit, Harry Daugherty, back-room power-broker from Ohio by way of Republican party power centers in Washington, D.C. Daugherty threw his cards on the table. "I can't play with you boys. You've got all the chips."

 

Sinclair's scowl suddenly turned to a big, broad grin and it became clear why he was one of the best deal-makers in the oil business when he picked up the cards from the table and shuffled the deck. "Daugherty, Daugherty, Daugherty." He started dealing and dealt Harry Daugherty in. "There's plenty of chips. We're putting together a company in Canada. It's going to buy oil just before the price goes up and sell it at the new, higher price. The profits are going to disappear into Liberty Bonds and the bonds are going to be donated to the party for the presidential campaign."

 

Daugherty looked at Sinclair, then picked up his cards. "That buys chips."

 

Doheny picked up his cards and smiled, almost grandfatherly. "Buys chips. But not for Lowden."

 

Hamon picked up his cards and set his jaw. "And not for the General."

 

Finished dealing, Sinclair set down the deck and picked up his cards. "o who?"

 

They studied their cards.

 

Jacques Livingstone, who first heard of the American democratic process as a little boy in faraway Baku and then heard it extolled as an adolescent in France, smiled inwardly at the irony. He had begged Torrio to put him in charge of the girls but Torrio said he needed his best man at his most important poker table. Perhaps, smiled Jacques to himself, democracy has its own inevitability. Perhaps things were the same in the new world as in the old. Despite Jacques' best efforts to avoid it, he was once again seeing big oil doing what it did best to democracy.

 

Daugherty glanced through the card room' open double doors, to the picture window overlooking the lake across the front room. A tall, expensively dressed clean-shaven stately man with a thick shock of black hair and smiling eyes had each arm around a buxom, giggling young girl. The girls held bottles of champagne and glasses and took turns dribbling gulps into the man' mouth. The man was telling the girls a story. "So this lady says to my friend, 'Sir, where I come from we stress breeding!' and my friend says, 'Lady, I stress it every chance I get but I don't usually talk about it in polite company. Wha'd'ya have in mind?" The man and the girls burst into uproarious laughter. Others around the room, similarly debauching, took no notice.

 

Daugherty studied his cards and threw some down. "Two. Harding looks like a president. Handsome. The big smile and the 'I'm gonna make you rich' look in his eyes. Got the sweet pipes, a real speechifier. Comes from Ohio, mother of presidents. Another McKinley."

 

Doheny threw in cards, wiggled two fingers at Sinclair, picked them up, glanced at the man with the two girls by the window. "Another McKinley. I like that."

 

Hamon passed a palm down over the table, signaling to Sinclair he would stand pat, then studied Harding. "He does. He looks it."

 

Sinclair checked his own cards, tossed some in, then picked up the deck. "Dealer takes three. Andrew Mellon is the man I'd like to see at Treasury."

 

Daugherty bet chips. "Sounds right."

 

Doheny dropped chips to stay in. "I do my business with Interior. What do you think about Senator Fall?"

 

Daugherty watched Doheny's chips fall and then looked at him. "Yes."

 

Hamon dropped chips to stay in. "What about Attorney General?"

 

Daugherty turned to him. "What about me?"

 

Hamon smiled broadly and threw in his hand. "Yeah."

 

Doheny hesitated, glanced at Sinclair and Hamon. "Harding will go along?"

 

Daugherty's pudgy face suddenly became rigidly serious. "Harding will go along."

 

Doheny smiled and threw in his hand. "Yes."

 

Sinclair smiled, threw in his hand and pushed the pile of chips to Daugherty. "Like I said, there's plenty of chips."

Copyright 2006 Herman K. Trabish. All Rights Reserved.