Listening to Jenny Mansfield of the Lincoln Ladies telling the audience Monday night that the organization never endorses a candidate in a Republican primary, I was reminded of a time 18 years ago when that was not the case. The deck was clearly stacked for Carthage native Bill Webster, the attorney general for that time, when he ran against Secretary of State Roy Blunt and State Treasurer Wendell Bailey. My memories of that night are from my book, The Turner Report:
I walked the three blocks from the Press office to Memorial Hall and, as usual, began taking notes on the surroundings. Candidates had arrived hours before the social, putting up their posters and signs, and strategically placing campaign literature on the tables. The setup was the same as it had been for years. The candidates, after shaking hands with the crowd for about an hour, would stroll up to the stage, have a seat on a folding chair and await their turn.
Each candidate was allotted a maximum three minutes to get his or her message across and it was not like these debates on television where the candidate continues to speak after time runs out. After three minutes at the Lincoln Ladies Ice Cream Social, the bell rang and you stopped. Candidates dared not continue, lest some fate far worse than death should befall them.
I could already sense that this Lincoln Ladies social was far different from the norm. I spotted hundreds and hundreds of red, white, and blue balloons tied in the balcony and saw dozens of men and women wearing Webster T-shirts. Several ladies appearing to be in their late 20s or early 30s were wearing red, white, and blue outfits, complete with white mini-skirts, which would have been far more suitable for teenagers than adults. (I wasn’t complaining, mind you.)
As the candidate began to meander toward the stage, I still had not seen any of the three GOP candidates for governor. People kept looking at the door, waiting for native son Bill Webster to make his triumphant appearance.
My camera was at the ready. (If you worked for The Carthage Press and came back from a political event without a photo of Bill Webster, you might as well forget about returning to the office and head straight to the unemployment line.) Finally, the door opened and a candidate for governor stepped in.
It wasn’t the right one.
“What’s he doing here?” a woman sitting a few feet from me asked, tapping the shoulder of a young blond woman standing in front of her when Roy Blunt walked into the room. It wasn’t a suit and tie, button-down candidate who came to the ice cream social. Blunt was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and dark slacks, but no suit jacket, and looked more like someone on a Sunday stroll than a candidate for the most powerful position in Missouri state government. I glanced at the woman who asked the question. Naturally, she was wearing a Webster t-shirt and carrying a Bill Webster for Governor sign. I had spotted her handing out Webster campaign fliers earlier.
The young woman responded, “Who?” clearly not having seen Blunt yet. As the woman pointed toward the door, the blonde’s mouth dropped open, but she quickly collected herself. “Well, I’ll say one thing for him.
“He’s got guts.”
Blunt worked the outer perimeter of the room, shaking hands, though no one seemed to be overjoyed at his presence. He quickly made his way to the stage and took a seat beside the other candidates.
Future Governor Matt Blunt was not at Memorial Hall that night, but three others whose names are still synonymous with the Missouri Republican Party were. As Bill Webster’s mother, Janet, sang a medley of patriotic songs at the beginning of the program, those sitting on the stage, respectfully listening, in addition to Roy Blunt, were attorney general candidate David Steelman, (whose wife Sarah is now state treasurer), and secretary of state candidate John Hancock, now a top GOP operative and blogger for Missouri Pulse).
The program began with candidates for Jasper County office and state representative. Situated near the south door, I heard a loud noise coming from outside. I slipped out the door and saw a helicopter landing in the parking lot next door in front of O’Reilly Automotive. A crowd began to gather and watched as Bill Webster stepped off the copter. But the attorney general made no move toward Memorial Hall. He was not going to put himself on the same level with the other GOP candidates.
I slipped through the crowd and asked Webster if he had time for a short interview. He nodded, though I noted at the time, that he did not look me in the eye as he did so. Bill Webster was one of those politicians I always hated to interview. He was always on message. If his message for the day was “We must cut taxes,” and you asked him, “Who do you think will win the World Series this year?” he would answer, “We must cut taxes,” and not even make a pretense of answering the question.
It wasn’t much of an interview. I don’t recall how much, if any, of it made the pages of The Carthage Press. After a few brief questions and long, but unrelated answers, I thanked the attorney general and returned to the room. I was torn between the need to head toward the front of the room and snap a few photos of the politicians or my desire to head to the back of the room. The siren call of the vanilla ice cream won out, and I had some more to tide me over, before resuming my reporting.
By this time, candidates for statewide office were talking. First were the candidates for attorney general and secretary of state. Then I was surprised to learn there was yet a fourth candidate for governor. Rev. Dwight Watts, Joplin, head of Soul’s Harbor, a group which offers shelter to the poor, was the first candidate for governor to speak.
“I have three great loves,” he said, “the state of Missouri, Jasper County, and Joplin.” Now that’s something to say in Carthage, I thought. Watts said he wanted Missouri’s government to return to the basics. “Basics is Jesus Christ. All problems can be solved by Jesus Christ.”
Just try to tell that to Roy Blunt, I thought. In a room with more than 200 people, nearly all of them angry at him for his series of ads ripping their own Bill Webster, Blunt had to say something that would make it worth his side trip.
After Watts finished, and Blunt was introduced, he patted the shoulder of attorney general candidate John Hall, who was sitting next to him, half smiled and said, “Here we go.”
A hush fell over the room as Blunt approached the lectern. You couldn’t have blamed him for thinking if that coward Wendell Bailey had shown up, at least he would have another three minutes to think of something to say.
Blunt smiled at the audience. No one smiled back. Blunt couldn’t have this crowd angrier if he said, “I don’t think there’s a one of you who shouldn’t be paying more taxes.”
I was halfway rooting for him to win the crowd over with the greatest three-minute speech of all time, then he started talking about newspaper endorsements. “Out of 24 newspapers that have endorsed candidates for governor in recent weeks,” Blunt said, “22 have supported my candidacy, one supported State Treasurer Wendell Bailey, and the other one divided their endorsement between Wendell Bailey and me.”
“No, no,” I wanted to shout. “We endorsed Bill Webster twice.” I thought if I didn’t say it, surely Marvin VanGilder would since he was sitting at a table at about the center of the room. But no one said a word. That damnable lie had been entered into the public discourse.
As you might expect, the Carthage crowd really didn’t care which newspapers had endorsed Blunt, or for that matter if any had endorsed him. Blunt’s feeble attempt at humor also fell short. He noted that he, Bill Webster and Wendell Bailey had just been at a dinner in Aurora. Bailey opted not to come to Carthage, Blunt said, but he thanked Webster for his kindness. “He offered to give me a lift, but he said I would have to ride on the propeller.” It wasn’t that bad of a line, but no one laughed.
Blunt did receive a light smatter of applause when he finished his three minutes by promising to work for Republican candidates in the general election, regardless of the primary’s outcome.
As he left Memorial Hall, there was an audible sigh of relief. Now that Roy Blunt was gone, it was time to get down to business.
And that’s when the lights went off.
The strains of “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen blared across the room. Everyone stood and the balloons were released from the balcony, floating through the air in every direction. Bill Webster entered through the south doorway, a spotlight focused on him every inch of his trip. He began removing his blue suit jacket and as he walked down the aisle toward the stage, he tossed it into the audience. (One of his staff workers caught it.)
Webster made no effort to begin his speech. He stood at the front of Memorial Hall and basked in the adoration of his hometown. Those ladies in the 20s and 30s in their short, red, white, and blue cheerleader-type skirts were jumping up and down.
By this time, I had already been a reporter for more than 15 years, but I was still caught up in the excitement of the moment. No wonder we endorsed this guy twice. He’s a superstar.
And so he would have remained if he had just kept his mouth shut. Unfortunately, there was no way any speech Bill Webster could give was going to live up to that kind of introduction.
For the first time, the Lincoln Ladies broke their rule and allowed a candidate to go over the three minute limit. That was another mistake.
It wasn’t a bad speech that Bill Webster made that night. It was a routine political speech, no better, no worse than any other the attorney general had ever made. And that night called for something special.
Still as I noted in the July 29, 1992, Press, Webster probably could have recited the Carthage phone book and the audience would have given him a standing ovation.
Webster started with criticism of Federal Judge Russell Clark’s desegregation rulings which pumped state money into the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts at the expense of the rest of the state. “Missouri taxpayers are paying for Kansas City students to travel across the nation playing tennis. They’re taking Russian fencing lessons, while schools from the rest of the state, including this area, have to struggle to provide students with their basic educational needs.”
Webster cited his accomplishments, saying he had made Missouri the state with the highest criminal conviction rate in the United States and had established a consumer aid program which was responding to 60,000 calls a year.
He then turned his focus toward the general election. “I need a big turnout from Jasper and Newton counties, not just now, but in November,” Webster said.
Already past the three minutes, Webster launched into an attack on both of his possible Democratic opponents, already putting Roy Blunt, Wendell Bailey (and even Rev. Dwight Watts) in his rearview mirror. Webster blasted Mel Carnahan’s call for a $200 million tax increase for education. “That’s not what this state needs to attract jobs.”
As much as Webster criticized Carnahan, he was even more dismissive of St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl. “He says he wants to do for this state what he has done for St. Louis. This state can’t afford that. St. Louis has lost 25 percent of its population and has the highest crime rate in the state.
“We don’t want Vince Schoemehl to do for Missouri what he has done for St. Louis.
Webster concluded with commentary on Roy Blunt’s remarks about all of the newspapers that had endorsed the secretary of state’s candidacy. “It’s not my job to do what the editorial boards of the Kansas City and St. Louis papers want. The people I answer to are the state of Missouri.”
I waited for Webster to add. “I have received the only two endorsements that matter, and both of them came from The Carthage Press.” Those words never came.
Maybe if we had endorsed him a third time.