By Forrest Whitman
I got an email recently from a reader who threatened me with a lawsuit. He was mad about an article I wrote four years ago which included examples of shock talk from Gov. Davis Waite and President Donald Trump. Waite was the Colorado governor from 1893 till 1895, and was given to making outrageous statements, what we’d call shock talk today. The reader angrily claimed I’d libeled one of his ancestors, Waite. I never intend to hurt anyone with an article. I sent the reader an apology for (possibly) comparing Davis Waite and Donald Trump. Haven’t heard from any lawyers so far.
As Donald Trump continues on his course of soft dictatorship, he makes horrible comments about anyone who criticizes him or offends his ego. Still, outrageous statements are nothing new in politics, many of them made right here in the Arkansas Valley. Just consider President Harry Truman, for that matter.
There is a big difference today, of course. Waite and Truman made their statements out of genuine political outrage. Trump makes his statements out of adolescent pique. Davis Waite and Harry Truman made some pretty wild statements in their day, but they were motivated by outrage over conditions suffered in Leadville and the rest of the country. Waite cut his teeth as a populist in Leadville, where he lived when he started his writing. Miners in the 1890s were facing grim times. The price of silver kept dropping. The mine owners were united in demanding a nine-hour day for eight hours of pay. Job opportunities were drying up. Miners couldn’t feed their families in too many cases
Waite gladly joined up with the populist movement. To some extent he also joined in the movement for woman’s right to vote (though he later backed off of that). Populism meant something else in those days than it does now. Today it’s often associated with nativism and racism. Back then it was focused on decent pay and conditions for the working man and decent prices for the farmer.
Outrageous statements are one way to rally a political base, and in Waite’s case it did work. It seems to work for Mr. Trump today. It does keep Trump in the public eye and he’ll pop up first on any news feed. To a lesser extent it worked for Harry Truman too. But it still seems a questionable tactic. Did Waite really help the miners in Leadville with his shock talk?
Waite was good at making shocking statements like this one from 1893: “Our weapons are argument and the ballot – a free ballot and a fair count. And if the money power shall attempt to sustain its usurpation by the strong hand we will meet the issue when it is forced upon us, for it is better infinitely better, that blood should flow to the horse’s bridles rather than our national liberties be destroyed.”
Outrageous statements helped Harry Truman in his fights in the 1940s too. He gave some of those statements from the back platforms of train cars in Salida. “Give ’em hell Harry!”, shouted several in the crowd. “I just tell the truth and the Republicans think it’s hell, Harry responded. “The Republicans believe in the minimum wage, the more minimum the better.” Some in the press opined that Truman’s speeches were over the line. But he won the Presidency. Why didn’t that work for Gov. Waite? Why did the voters usher him off the political stage? Did he help those Arkansas Valley workingmen who started his campaign in the first place?
Clearly Waite said some things worthy of the press ridicule he got. As governor he got in some doozies of fights. When two members of the Denver Police and Fire Board refused to shut down gambling and prostitution Waite put in two of his own men to “close down that den of vipers.” The two sitting members refused to quit. The result was what the press called “the city hall war.”
It was close to a real war. Waite called out the Colorado National Guard and surrounded City Hall. The commissioners relented and allowed Waite’s two reform candidates to sit, but the whole thing was considered overblown. In fact, the press made even more fun of “bloody bridles” when he shouted about the horrible den of iniquity lodged in City Hall. But was Waite’s City Hall war “outrageous?” Mostly the press thought he’d over-reacted by calling out the National Guard. On the other hand, Waite hated to see workingmen cheated out of their pay envelopes in the gambling houses and pleasure palaces.
Apparently Waite did push too far. Jerome Smiley, popular political writer of that day, thought Waite was too shocking. He wrote that despite the merits of any issues the Waite administration was just “one brawl after another.” He predicted Waite would never be re-elected governor and he was right. Plenty of pundits think President Trump’s tweets and speeches go over the line of outrageous. My friend the teacher says Trump should be put in “time out” for “potty mouth.” She can’t see Trump being re-elected. But do “shock lines” work for politicians?
It’s hard to judge how effective Waite was. His proposal for getting the price of silver back up didn’t have much effect. His “Fandango dollars” (Mexican silver dollars, possibly accepted as legal tender) never worked at all. Some populist reforms did come about later (particularly under Governor Shaffroth in 1910). Women did get the right to vote eventually. Waite, at least, got those issues out there and got attention, too. Conditions in Leadville did get better, but very slowly.
Old “Bloody Bridles” Waite certainly was a shock talker. He may not have been too effective in the long run, but, on the other hand, he certainly stood up for the miners and farmers of the upper Arkansas Valley. Also, for any lawyers reading this, I never intended to compare Davis Waite with Donald Trump.