Saturday, January 16, 2010

DBTL 53: Salt & Pepper

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. With no European crisis to deal with, Franklin Roosevelt decides to maintain tradition and retire at the end of his second term. The Democratic Barkley-Kennedy ticket is engulfed in scandal, and Senator Robert A. Taft is elected president. When a vacancy opens up on the Supreme Court, he decides to give the Democrats an unpleasant surprise . . .

Washington DC, USA
30 June 1941

As he was ushered into the Oval Office, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley reflected that it wasn't hard to guess the reason for President Taft's invitation. Barkley was accompanied by Majority Whip J. Lister Hill and Judiciary Committee Chairman Frederick van Nuys, as well as by their Republican counterparts -- Minority Leader Charles McNary, Assistant Leader Warren Austin, and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member George W. Norris. Throw in the fact that the Senate had just confirmed Owen Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few days back, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that Taft was going to announce his nominee to fill Roberts' now-vacant position as Associate Justice.

Barkley still couldn't enter this room without wondering what might have been. Winning the presidential election had seemed like a sure thing right after the convention -- all he and Joe Kennedy had to do was run on Franklin's record. But then all those skeletons in Kennedy's closet had come tumbling out, and the sure thing had gone vanishing like a will o' the wisp. Now this office belonged to Bob Taft -- for the time being, at least.

There was something funny going on, though. All three Republican Senators had cat-that-ate-the-canary expressions on their faces. Barkley realized that they already knew what Taft was going to say, and they were pleased as punch.

After all the social pleasantries had been dealt with, Taft got down to business. "I've asked you all here to inform you of my nominee for the Supreme Court. After giving the matter considerable thought, I've come to the conclusion that the best man for the job would be Perry Howard."

Barkley turned the name over in his head, but couldn't place it for the life of him. It wasn't any member of Congress, and he couldn't seem to remember any member of the federal judiciary by that name. He looked over at van Nuys, but the Hoosier committee chairman seemed equally at a loss. Then he glanced over at Hill, and two things were clear at once: Hill knew the name, and he was not pleased about it.

"Lister?" he said.

"He's the Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party," said the Alabaman, his face growing red with anger. It took a moment for Barkley to understand why, but then the words "Mississippi Republican Party" came into focus.

"He's a negro?"

Hill nodded angrily. "Black as the ace of spades."

Barkley looked back at Taft. "I'm sorry, Mr. President," he said, "but that is completely unacceptable."

Austin spoke up then, and his Vermont twang sounded particularly grating at that moment. "I'd like to hear you explain why to the northern members of your caucus."

And that was when Barkley understood the trap that Taft had laid for him. Reject this fellow Perry Howard, and the northern liberals would howl like wildcats. It would tear Franklin's still-fragile New Deal coalition apart at the seams, and send the country's negro voters flying back to the Republican Party. Barkley knew that if he had gotten 71% of the negro vote last year, the way Frankin had back in '36, he'd be sitting behind Taft's desk and Taft would be back in the Senate. Let the negroes go back to voting Republican, and it would be Cox against Harding all over again.

Barkley could see the 1944 election go glimmering, when van Nuys spoke up. "I may see a way out of this."

Van Nuys had his glasses off, and was cleaning them with a handkerchief. "Go ahead, Fred," said Barkley. "I'm all ears."

Still intent on his glasses, van Nuys said, "Not too long ago, a little birdie told me that James McReynolds was planning to step down." McReynolds, Barkley knew, was notoriously the most unpopular member of the Supreme Court. Virulently anti-Semitic, McReynolds had refused to have anything to do with Brandeis, Cardozo, or Frankfurter. He had hated Franklin and the New Deal, and had publicly sworn not to step down until "that man" had left the White House. Now that Franklin was gone, McReynolds presumably was ready to retire.

"And if he is?" said Taft.

"Well, Mr. President," said van Nuys, looking up, "if you are serious in your desire to have a negro on the Court, then it seems to me that you ought to be willing to do a little horse trading. I think my colleague Senator Hill and his fellows might be amenable to the idea, if Mr. Howard were accompanied by someone they found more congenial."

"Such as?" said Taft.

"Such as Senator Hill, here," van Nuys answered. He replaced his glasses and turned to look at Hill. "What do you say, Lister? Do you think the other members of the caucus would agree?"

Barkley knew that Hill would ordinarily have jumped at the chance to serve on the Supreme Court, but now he looked like he had swallowed something disagreeable. He finally said, "You do realize, Fred, that if I agree to this, I'll end up having to sit next to this . . . negro, because we'll both have equal seniority."

Van Nuys shrugged. "The law is a jealous mistress."

Barkley saw Hill trade a look with Taft, and he could tell that both men were wondering whether the gain would be worth the sacrifice.

"Fine," Hill said at last. "I'll go along if he does."

"It's a deal," said Taft. He reached out his hand, and Hill reluctantly took it. Barkley let himself sigh a long, silent sigh. He might yet get the chance to work in this office.

"Come along, Lister," he said to the still-frowning Alabaman, "now it's time to break the news to Bilbo and the others."

"Oh, God," Hill muttered. "You just had to bring him up, didn't you? Oh well, maybe we'll get lucky and the news will kill him."

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