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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007 12:51 pm

Gov. Henry Horner, martyr to good government

“In the realm of politics, there have been too few like him.”

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Untitled Document In 1961, after a long day of working on a promotional film at New Salem, 83-year-old Carl Sandburg granted Tom Littlewood an interview about Sandburg’s old friend Henry Horner, the two-term governor of Illinois who died in 1940. “Horner was the Real Goods,” said the poet and author, who had shared with Horner a love for Abraham Lincoln. “In the realm of politics, there have been too few like him. He collaborated with men who were purchasable without becoming purchasable himself. He got to high places without selling his soul.”
    As a young Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Littlewood recognized that Illinois had no biography of Horner and needed one to remember what the Real Goods in politics looked like. He published Horner of Illinois in 1969. Now a retired University of Illinois journalism professor, Littlewood has rewritten and updated his Horner biography with newly available material, self-publishing a second edition under the title Henry Horner and his Burden of Tragedy (AuthorHouse, 2007). According to Tom’s wife, Barbara, just after page proofs were finished this spring Littlewood sustained a debilitating stroke, eerily similar to the stroke that afflicted Horner. As he recovers at his home in Urbana, we can thank the good professor for his book, which comes as a timely reminder that the governor’s mansion in Springfield was once the home of principle and courage.     When Horner became governor, in 1933, nearly half of the state’s work force was unemployed, including 850,000 in Chicago. National Guard troops were called out to disperse anti-hunger marchers descending on Springfield. Schoolteachers were protesting because they hadn’t been paid in a year. In downstate coal fields, the Progressive Mine Workers of America were battling the United Mine Workers. The price of corn dropped to 10 cents a bushel and farmers faced bankruptcy.
     Into this storm came the first Jewish governor of Illinois, an honest, reform-minded probate judge. He was elected out of the ethnic political system that saw the Czech mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, slate him to woo the West Side Jewish wards in order to break the Irish hold on Chicago politics. Horner grew up on this “pragmatic style of urban politics,” serving as a precinct worker in the wicked and wide-open 1st Ward. He was educated by the likes of ward boss Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who bragged, “This ain’t no sissy town.” Horner would say that he learned in the First Ward that, “There is something bigger in politics than holding office. That thing is the true friendly interest of your fellow men.”
    Horner had a good working relationship with Cermak, but two months after Horner took office the Chicago mayor was killed by a bullet intended for newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt. Ed Kelly became mayor and Patrick Nash the Democratic chairman, forming what would become known as the Kelly-Nash “machine.” It had no patience for a governor who thought it OK to hire Republicans and award contracts to the lowest bidders. While Horner’s working hours were filled with controversy and hostility, his nights and weekends were lonely. As a bachelor in the governor’s mansion, Horner lived alone with his 6,000 Lincoln books. He struck up a friendship with James Griffin, the Catholic bishop, who also lived alone, two blocks away by the cathedral. The two would often get together at the Executive Mansion to sip Old Belmont bourbon, and sometimes at night the governor and the bishop would stroll through downtown Springfield, window-shopping.
    In the throes of the Depression, Horner enacted the first sales tax in Illinois, to raise matching funds for federal relief payments. People grumbled that every dollar purchased required “two cents for the Jew in Springfield.” At the end of Prohibition, Horner wanted state control of the liquor business, but the Chicago bosses wanted local control. When he vetoed a bill to allow Chicago to license and tax horserace gambling, that really made them mad.      The machine turned against Horner and tried to defeat him in his 1936 reelection bid. He campaigned against “bossism” and won his second term anyway with the help of downstate voters grateful for relief payments and honest government, as well as support from Chicago Jewish voters more loyal to ethnicity than to the political organization. So many politicians had turned against him, though, that he became broken and obsessed. “You’re so busy watching the people around here so they won’t steal,” social reformer Jane Addams told him, “that when it comes to seeing through to the great problems of the day you don’t have the facts or the vision.” In 1938 he had a stroke from which he never fully recovered, and in 1940 he died in office.     At his funeral, Mayor Kelly and Chairman Nash and all the Democratic Party bigwigs sat in the front row. The rabbi officiating at the service turned to them when he said, “Though modest and unassuming in all his ways, he felt that he was destined to uproot some of the unfortunate and sinister aspects of our political life — graft, corruption, dishonesty, and the spoils system — from the fair name of our state. Certain it is that in trying to crush the machine and all that it stood for in 1938 he spent himself too lavishly and today he lies here before us a martyr to the cause of good government.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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