Political scandals in the Granite State are infrequent, at least compared to those of our Bay State neighbor to the south, but we do have them. Usually, you have to wait for all the affected parties to die before you really get to hang the dirty laundry out in the sun.
New Hampshire’s late Republican U.S. Senator Norris Cotton was famous for his stories and enjoyed relating this one: As a young lawyer in 1935, the governor had nominated him to be state attorney general but was unable get his nomination approved by the Executive Council. Discouraged at such a defeat early in his career, Cotton went home to Lebanon to brood. He soon received a letter from a friend who told him not to feel too badly, because once upon a time a council had also refused the nomination of the great Daniel Webster.
“I figured the council wouldn’t confirm a drunken, womanizing, carousing son of a bitch as attorney general back then, and this council wasn’t inclined to do so, either. Seeing how Webster turned out, I wasn’t going to let it bother me,” Cotton told a supporter.
In fact, Webster eventually moved from Portsmouth to Boston to seek his fortune, after serving two terms in Congress from New Hampshire. Ironically, Cotton ended up sitting at Webster’s old desk in the U.S. Senate, retiring in 1974 after also serving as N.H. House speaker and congressman.
Cotton was a colorful figure in Washington, holding forth in joyous sessions full of laugher, dining nightly with a table full of friends and staff at the University Club, near the White House. In earlier years, Cotton was not bashful with the Washington ladies, either. When he retired, Cotton told an audience, “Oh, don’t worry, since leaving the Senate, I sleep like a baby. Every couple of hours I wake up, cry for half an hour, go back to sleep. Wake up, cry for half an hour, go back to sleep…”
Many Granite Staters have distinguished themselves in the political arena. A few have found notoriety, a bit of celebrity or even scandal. Rumors abound of the governor who survived a heart attack after cavorting with a cottage full of male and female friends in the Lakes Region. The inebriated congressman caught with his pants down with a beautiful blonde, in a ditched car off a country road (the local police kept the incident quiet, as was the style in another era). Then there’s the governor who used his official contingency fund for personal use. Ah, the gossip is juicy in nearly every administration. Some of it is even true.
New Hampshire is perhaps more famous for keeping the confidences of its powerful friends, rather than hanging out their dirty laundry, which may explain the remarkable fact that no less than three New Hampshire men have served U.S. presidents as their closest aides. Each, however, suffered for it.
After assuming office, George Washington gave his Mount Vernon business manager, Tobias Lear of Portsmouth, the job as “Personal Secretary to His Excellency the President of the United States.” Lear was an efficient aide to Washington, and was with him when he died at Mount Vernon, recording the great man’s last hours. The controversy with Lear is the suspicion he destroyed some of Washington’s personal papers, including important correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, a charge he denied but never lived down. Later Lear served as a successful diplomat, but his life ended sadly when he shot himself in 1816, after ending up in what was essentially a clerk’s job in the War Department — quite a come-down from being presidential factotum to the iconic George Washington.
Sherman Adams, a successful lumberman, congressman and governor, became Dwight Eisenhower’s “Assistant President.” With his gruff personal style, Adams made important enemies as he micro-managed White House operations.
Eisenhower signed no documents that were not first initialed “S.A.” The joke around the capitol was it would be a great tragedy if Adams died and Eisenhower became president. Adams was done in when it was discovered that he had accepted gifts from a wealthy New England industrialist under investigation by federal authorities. Adams denied all wrongdoing, but resigned in 1958 in a nationally-televised broadcast amid a huge media frenzy.
Later, scholars found that Adams, of modest means, had been accepting money from wealthy friends for years, dating back to his first term as governor in 1949 — a questionable practice, but then not illegal. Adams faced indictment by the IRS for unpaid taxes on these gifts. Only with Eisenhower’s personal intervention with President John F. Kennedy was Adams spared criminal prosecution when the ex-president learned Adams might commit suicide if the indictment went forward. Adams died in 1986 at age 87, after fruitful post-White House years building Loon Mountain Ski Area into one of the state’s premier winter resorts.
Also making powerful enemies as chief of staff to the first President Bush was three-term governor John H. Sununu, a brilliant MIT educated engineer with a brash, no-nonsense style. Sununu did not suffer fools easily, and similar to Adams, was not impressed with Beltway niceties when it came to getting things done for his boss. The newspapers had a field day with one colorful exchange Sununu had with U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Dick Lesher, when he supposedly threatened to take a chainsaw to Lesher’s “manhood” unless he got his group behind a presidential initiative. In a 1997 Washington Post interview, Sununu disputed the language attributed to him but not the substance of the story.
Sununu eventually resigned amid a media firestorm for using government aircraft and limousines for such personal or political activities as ski trips, dental visits, attending stamp auctions and partisan fundraisers. After he stopped using government planes, Sununu switched to corporate aircraft, which continued to draw criticism. Although not illegal (he reimbursed the government when necessary, either through personal or corporate donations), the media uproar was too great for him to keep one of the most important jobs in the world.
One of the state’s most powerful senators, Styles Bridges, was also no stranger to controversy. Once third in line for the presidency as Senate president pro tempore, Bridges survived a noisy investigation when it was found he was secretly on the payroll of the United Mine Workers to the tune of $35,000 a year, in addition to his $12,500 Senate salary.
After his death in 1961, over $50,000 in cash was found in the basement of his home, Bridges House, now the official governor’s residence, according to the late Concord Attorney Richard Upton. Since Bridges’ will had been probated, Upton, who had been consulted on the matter, said he and his father, Robert, himself a former U.S. Senator, didn’t quite know what to do with the funds, so they suggested the money be donated anonymously to the Republican National Committee, which was what happened, Upton said in a 1995 interview. Upton’s brother Fred, attorney for the Bridges estate, however, has disputed the amount that was found to Bridges’ biographer, James Kiepper. Still, Kiepper relates the amount was between $50,000 and $100,000, discovered behind a bookcase in the basement. The day before Bridges’ funeral, the senator’s widow, Dolores, told President Lyndon Johnson at a luncheon that she was actually left a million dollars in unreported money, all evidently garnered on a relatively modest Senate salary.
Then, of course, there is New Hampshire’s only president Franklin Pierce, long stuck with the image of being a drunken, weak tool of southern slave interests. Yet a new look at Pierce in a two-volume study authored by Peter Wallner reveals a careful “states rights” leader painfully working to hold the Union together as the threat of civil war loomed. Wallner found no evidence that Pierce ever drank alcohol while president, but did fall into it after leaving the White House.
In a fascinating passage from the diary of Pierce friend Clement March, a Friday night in Boston with the ex-President is described “as the greatest frolic of my life.” March recounts a marathon of dining and drinking from afternoon into the night with Pierce (whose wife was home in Concord), which included brandy, champagne, oysters, beefsteak, attending the theater, back to the hotel for more brandy, wine, and oysters, then topping off the evening with “a stroll about the Streets” with “a call in Fruit Street, where we disbursed some thirty dollars, and at 4 o’clock repaired to our rooms …”
Fruit Street in the Boston of 1858 was a red light district, the Combat Zone of its day. Thirty dollars in today’s money is about $900. March’s diary is silent on specifics, but one can imagine what these two fun seekers were up to.
This tale alone might be enough to at least somewhat resuscitate Pierce’s dour reputation. Although Pierce was apparently involved with a woman after his wife’s passing, he never remarried and died at Concord in 1869.
Yet, if there was ever a Granite State son who lived large, it was Daniel Webster. Celebrated in his lifetime as a brilliant orator with an extraordinary legal mind, which helped shape constitutional law in the young nation, Webster also had a thirst for money, women and strong drink. Born in Salisbury, he was elected to the U.S. Senate three times from Massachusetts and was secretary of state under three presidents.
Webster was constantly in debt, despite making four or five fortunes in his lifetime. He borrowed money from wealthy friends and constantly solicited funds from powerful interests who had a stake in the public offices he held. In just one instance, Boston and New York friends raised $137,000 ($4.1 million today) to encourage him to seek another term in the Senate. To ensure his support for chartering the Second National Bank, Webster pressured its president for an off-the-books loan of up to $360,000 in today’s money and got it. Webster died broke and in debt because of a lifetime of high living and bad investments. Devoted to his family, still there were always rumors of womanizing.
After his first wife died, Webster squired Sarah Goodrich, an attractive artist who painted a miniature of her own bare breasts, which she entitled “Beauty Revealed,” giving it to Webster as a memento. One art historian told a biographer for a woman of Goodrich’s stature to expose herself in such a way was “unheard of” in 1828.
Webster even managed to borrow $2,000 from Goodrich ($60,000 today), which he never repaid, the rascal. Then there was a famous moment at a Washington opera house, when in the middle of the performance, Webster stood up after an evening of tippling and began singing in a loud bellowing voice, “Hail Columbia, Happy Land,” stopping the show cold, as both cast and audience cheered.
He died at his 1,800-acre estate in Marshfield, at the age of 70 in the fall of 1852. He had spent his final summer at his boyhood home, The Elms, in Franklin. Consider it ironic that The Elms is currently being converted into a substance abuse center. Somewhere, old “Black Dan” is probably frowning. NH
This article appears in the March 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine