The Profit Way of Mind
By Eli Siegel
The story I discussed this evening is important, but I said last week that I would go on with another story I saw as mighty important too: “Mystery in Illinois: How $30,000 State Official Left Estate Worth $3-Million” (New York Times, Jan. 15, 1971). The person in it, Paul Powell, and a person like Herbert Akers should be compared. Powell went away from his conscience to where the money was. Then he acted like a good guy. If you take the people’s money, at least you can act like a good guy:
The revelation of Mr. Powell’s hoard, and a series of subsequent revelations,...have prompted investigations by the State Attorney General and the Internal Revenue Service.
Meanwhile, the throes and agonies of many people who quite properly paid their income tax have not yet been told. There can be a great many disgusts and internal yellings before propriety wins.
To show that opposites can meet: There have been people who decide they are not going to pay their income tax because they think their money is going to be used for the wrong purpose. Then, people also don’t pay their income tax for the most secret and acquisitive reasons. One reason for not paying income tax can be very different from another reason—but the income tax is not paid. It seems Mr. Powell had as much reluctance to paying his income tax as anybody opposed to the Vietnam War. You cannot go and itemize your income tax, saying, “Use this money for schools. Use this money for government expenses. Nothing doing for Southeast Asia.”
Mr. Powell died at the age of 68 last Oct. 10 in a suite he was sharing in the Kahler Hotel in Rochester, Minn. with his personal secretary and close friend, Mrs. Margaret Hensey, while on a visit to the Mayo Clinic.
That place, the Mayo Clinic, is the scene of some of the greatest worries in the world. It’s a place where rich people who are very worried about themselves can go. It’s very famous, though not as famous as it used to be, because it used to be felt that the Mayo brothers could save you if anyone could.
His administrative assistant, Nicholas D. Ciacco, conceded...that during the delay of more than 15 hours before the death was announced he chartered a plane from Springfield to Rochester, returned to the capital with Mrs. Hensey and removed files and sealed envelopes—two of which contained $50,000—from Mr. Powell’s office to her home.
The Article Gives Many Details
The fact that how Powell lived, what he did, was talked about, was shown, is a sign of the unconscious againstness to the profit system, because once there wouldn’t have been such a to-do made about it—not this thorough.
Mr. Ciacco...had survived linkage to such minor peccadilloes as the issuance of a special unlisted auto license plate to Sam Giancana, reputed Mafia leader, and the release of lists of drivers with bad records to high interest insurance companies.
People are still working at some new way of making money. This getting of lists and selling them is a wonderful way. It was completely unknown to Greece and Rome.
“Paul Powell came out of the rolling hill country of southern Illinois.” This means that poskudnaks (i.e., creeps) can arise out of land that has beautiful landscape.
He grew up poor but scuffling....He went on to serve three terms as Speaker of the [Illinois] House.
Since there is a great to-do now about the paucity of funds in state governments and local governments, there should be a clear study of how it is that there is this scarcity of funds. There is a story that Pennsylvania has announced its financial weakness, and Newark has just announced comparative bankruptcy. Why is this?
He would lie back on his sofa, a Scotch and water in hand, and answer the requests of favor-seekers on a constantly ringing phone.
There are two kinds of arrogance. The arrogance of Herbert Akers might have been very distasteful: “Oh, get out of here. Scram, won’t you! Look, don’t bother me, Mom—don’t you see I don’t want to be bothered?!” That is a kind of whining arrogance. It’s a mingling of whining and truculence. Then, there is another kind, which for the moment can be called the pontifical whisky-and-soda arrogance. You invite your friends, you’re very lavish with whisky and soda, you lie back, and you watch them enjoying themselves on your whisky and soda.
As Secretary of State, he controlled a patronage army of some 5,000 payrollers who were vital to...election day efforts. He back-slapped, hand-shook, wheeled and dealed, and displayed his power with an open arrogance.
Usually these hyphenated or near-hyphenated phrases have opposites in them. Wheeler-dealer, which has risen up in the word world or phrase world, is one of those. You maneuver: that’s the wheeling (which is a circle). Then the straight line: that’s the dealing.
Humanity & Elections
Two years ago, reformers running for the state’s constitutional convention waited in the hallway outside his office all night in hopes of gaining the first line on the ballot—an asset sometimes estimated to be worth 10 to 15 per cent more votes. The reformers were enraged to discover Powell aides carrying cartons of petitions from organization candidates in a side door.
These elections for minor offices go on all over the country. There’s a great deal of history there, and emotion. The Majority Leader in the New York State Senate—the Republican Party controls the State Senate—Mr. Brydges, is a character. He is out of Maupassant. He is out of Flaubert. He is also out of Hugo somewhat. He likewise is out of Balzac. At the same time, he never went to France. There are assemblymen who are characters. The way they pick up all that vile elaborateness in Onondaga—how did they get that enormously complicated?! In New York City you can expect it. But in nice county places—Oneida County, Warren County!
Testifying in a Federal Court suit..., Mr. Powell conceded he had put the names of the regulars in the favored positions....“I gave preference to men I knew something about.” He denounced the suit as...“an effort by longhaired hippie Communists to get on the ballot.”
Even at this time, any person who wears his hair with conspicuous length and lavishness would have a hard time saying he belonged to that forlorn party. The hippie and the Marxian-last-stand—they’re very different.
In Collusion with Businesses
As a public official, Mr. Powell’s main constituents were the horse-racing interests and the trucking industry, and they were the source of much of his wealth.
There are industries that have a history. One is the horse racing industry.
As a legislator, he assiduously aided the horse racing tracks, keeping state taxes low and profits high. His estate showed more than 23,000 shares of stock in various race tracks—not available to the general public—much of which he had purchased for 10 cents a share.
There used to be discussions in various parts of Illinois and New York, “Which is better to own—a horse or a prizefighter?”
He was friendly with Irwin (Big Sam) Wiedrick, who had done a couple of years’ time in upstate New York for some unpleasantness involving defrauding a widow and later became the unofficial czar of Chicago area racing.
They say there’s a list somewhere of all the fairly wealthy newly-become widows, if you’re interested in getting their confidence. Well, this is part of our free enterprise system.
Wiedrick thought so highly of Mr. Powell that he split his annual take with him.
Though I had planned to continue discussing the Perry Miller book,1 I was advised by the Transcendentalists if need be not to emphasize them this evening and to show what evil is in the world. They were quite courageous. Amos Bronson Alcott said that to me; so did Henry David Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Jones Very, and Sarah Margaret Fuller; and Theodore Parker was quite emphatic. So they don’t mind if I don’t emphasize the Transcendentalists. In fact, they requested me not to today, because if our Houses of Congress are going to be addressed,2 it’s a time to present America through some matters of now. So I’m not in any way thoughtless of them. And I resent any imputation to that effect! In fact, Amos Bronson Alcott said he didn’t know what a “take” was, but he’d like to know. He said he had enough to do fighting the Fugitive Slave Law—what’s this business about “takes”?
There Is American Industry
The Better Government Association...has charged that Mr. Powell received considerable amounts from a trucking industry eager to avoid weight regulations and that he took payoffs for such favors as allowing Illinois trucks to operate with cheaper out-of-state licenses, some reportedly to fictitious addresses.
The manufacturing of license plates for autos all over America is a very large thing: the steel, the printing, the getting it accurate and avoiding the possible mishaps. You didn't need a license in the days of wagons, or to drive a car in the early days. But later it was found necessary for every car that travelled a road or street to have a license plate, so that if something happened somebody could see who might have been involved. (License plates have had a way of being transferred, and all; still, they do help.) Imagine what it takes to make those plates, what a careful job in metal, with all the states abbreviated.
The Internal Revenue Service is also investigating whether truckers were pressured to buy expensive tires from several concerns linked to Mr. Powell.
This has in it some of the—I use the word carefully—wonderful history of American industry: license plates for autos, autos themselves, and now tires. The tire industry is very big. If you want to have a sense of luxury and power, get some of those very, very fat tires that big trucks use. You get a sense that the world is stable and Berkeley3 was wrong.
Another source of [Powell’s] income was... kickbacks or contributions required from patronage employees....Another source...was the sale of low-number license plates, with the price reportedly running up to $1,000.
There is a traffic in easily remembered telephone numbers; those ordinary numbers are just for ordinary homes. And so with license plates.
When the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago gave up Illinois plate No. 1, however, Mr. Powell kept it for himself.
One set of stocks and promissory notes showed holdings in the Mansion View Lodge in Springfield, holdings Mr. Powell had denied in 1967 when an investigation showed that state employees visiting the capital for training or conferences were required to stay at the motel.
There are a few famous places in America where there are conferences, away from the city. There is one in Sulphur Springs, Virginia: some of the most noted rascals in the country have discussed things there.
A Drama of Much & Little
When the nickels, dimes and quarters were collected from the 18 Coca-Cola vending machines in the capital building, they were turned over to him....
Mrs. Eva Murdock, the Negro maid who had cleaned his suite for years, recalls...the last day she saw him....She was trying to raise money for her church at the time and asked Mr. Powell for a donation....He pulled out a fat roll of bills and peeled off a single.
That phraseology appears in many novels of the twenties: pulling out a fat roll of bills and peeling off some of them—not a single, necessarily.
He left the room but came back moments later. “Eva, why don’t you take this piece of fruitcake and enjoy it with my best wishes,” she remembered him saying. “My gosh,” Mrs. Murdock, 57, told a reporter later, “Mr. Powell had already taken two bites out of that piece of cake.”
I’ll point out that the word fat, which is here, is ever so close to the word fate. Such different notions of reality! Fate, unembodied, hard to see, unearthly, abstract, ominous—and then the word fat, so different, and only one letter difference.