Alfalfa Bill: A Life of Politics and What is History Anyway?

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Twentieth century, political biography, southern history, and interesting, but often forgotten characters in history:  All these were draws for me wanting to read Alfalfa Bill.  The biography is about William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray who was a key political figure in the early days of Oklahoma statehood.  It is often not thought about, but Oklahoma became a state very late in the process.  In 1907, it became the 46th state in the Union.  Of course, it was in the thick of events in American history long before statehood.  There is no understanding of Oklahoma history without recognition of its previous existence as a land set apart for Native Americans.  That would have created enough adventure, but white Americans (Surprise! Surprise!) realized they wanted part of the Indian Territory.

Bill Murray was Texas-born.  After the kind of tough upbringing so characteristic of his times (1869-1956), he found his political and personal options in Texas diminished, so he lit out for Oklahoma Territory.  He is one of Oklahoma’s great success stories.  Only, he often suffered quite the opposite of success.  His political career was a series of disastrous defeats and surprising victories.  It was hardscrabble politics and brawling every step of the way.  On several occasions, Murray would reach a pinnacle of success only to see that turned into a bitter setback.

A big part of the Murray story is longevity in politics.  He served in a number of political roles.  He balanced the weight of varying political forces that contributed to the Oklahoma firestorms.  In his favor, he married a woman who was of Choctaw-Chickasaw heritage.  He was well schooled in politics due to a smattering of formal education and personal readings.  He was a man who understood–like all successful politicians–how image is so vital to political credibility.  Forever, he was touting himself as a farmer, and Murray did have a farm or two along the way; however, he was not really a farmer and was certainly not a success at it.

The high points of his career were the prominent positions he held in his long tenure as a political figure.  He was president of the Constitutional Convention in Oklahoma.  Unlike the legendary quiet, but powerful persona of George Washington at the 1789 convention, Murray was up to his neck in the rough and tumble of the political document-creation.  He served several terms in the United States House of Representatives.  That may have been his finest hour in terms of his political skills, networking with powerful political figures like President Woodrow Wilson, and showing real non-partisanship.

Later he served as governor of Oklahoma.  This was during the Great Depression, and his victory in politics (after a long moribund period) was a reminder that the voters were looking for a common man with more than just common sense to guide them.  Remember that Oklahoma was hit during that time by two great tsunamis.  Along with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl devastated the region.  This links up with the great migration of Okies, as they came to be called, who migrated to California.  (See John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for a fictionalized account of those times.)

As the 1932 Presidential election neared, one thing was clear:  This was going to be the time of a great Democrat Party win against the hapless Herbert Hoover.  Among those who toyed and attempted to win the nomination was Oklahoma’s “Alfalfa Bill” Murray.  His candidacy was pretty much a flop.  (Compare it to Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, and many others in 2016.)  Murray gave some attempts to run a campaign without money, political guidance, and a slim chance while going up against more powerful figures like John Nance Garner from neighboring Texas and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt from New York.

In one sense, it was the 1932 Presidential election that began drawing the closing curtain on Murray’s career.  Rather than flocking to Candidate Roosevelt, Murray had said some rather cruel and over-the-top things about the man who was to become the face of the Democrat Party.  By 1936, Murray was supporting Alf Landon in his hapless race.  In all following years, Murray’s ventures into political events seemed more and more Quixotic and hopeless.

All in all, a colorful career politician, Bill Murray was.  Legendary in Oklahoma simply due to the fact that he accomplished a lot even though he was as self-serving as so many are.  He was lovable and deplorable at times.  On some issues, he was far-sighted; on others, he was blind.  He was a product of the prejudices of his time, and that was a day where there were real racists.  Politicians would often either echo racist sentiments or truly believe them in order to win.  He was a faithful husband, unless one considers politics his mistress.  And, sad to say, in his latter years, he was a cranky and often ugly commentator on people and events.

I really enjoyed parts of this book, but must confess a few of my shortcomings.  Somehow, the details of Oklahoma state legislative battles eludes my interest. (And I am a rather dull person.)  The great German statesman Bismarck once said that it is better not to watch sausages or laws being made.  Even reading about the processes after the fact–long after–is not recommended either.

This question I kept asking myself was this:  Who will read my review and rush out and buy this book?  Maybe only the first part of that question is relevant.  But even people I know who share interests in politics, history, and biographies will not likely rush to order this work.  As a book reviewer, I read quite a few books–usually by university presses–that I know want get much notice even as non-fiction.

This led to this question:  What is history about anyway?

I am glad that Robert Dorman at Oklahoma City University devoted countless hours to research and writing this book.  No doubt, it was gratifying to him.  He is probably giving a few talks on Murray and is being consulted in person or in his printed works for his take on related events.  But who reads about the long forgotten political figures of other states?

I have been re-reading Michael Douma’s pathbreaking, world-changing, revolutionary book Creative Historical Thinking.  It was published by Routledge this past year.  (My over-the-top description of the book is due to my friendship with Michael, which is based on trading insults and compliments with little to distinguish the two.)

Here is the pertinent problem:  How do people, particularly students in my classroom see or understand history?  After reading 339 pages of Oklahoma political history, much of it is a total muddle in my mind.  The details of the Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention slid right over my thinking even as I was going through those pages (painfully at times).

Okay, it’s trivia from early 20th century Oklahoma.  What difference does it make?  But I am teaching the Russian Revolution right now to my students.  What difference does Alexis Romanov’s hemophilia make to them?  What difference does the quarrels between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks make?  Then when we get to World War II, what difference does it make?

Obviously, some people take a shine to history.  The Ardennes Offensive is as fascinating as last night’s football game leading up to Superbowl 2019.  But we don’t teach courses on everything that happens to be a personal interest of someone out there.  Let’s don’t even consider some of the college courses and majors now offered.  I am talking about education.

A history teacher needs to read books like Alfalfa Bill sometimes just to see how their students view history class.  “What is going on?  Who cares? and Why do we have to study this?”  This is not all just student rebelliousness, but is sometimes rooted in the way different folks process time and events from the past.

Was I helped personally by reading this book?  Yes.  How?  I was made better aware of the impact of Socialists in early 20th Century America and even in places like Oklahoma.  I was sadly made aware (again) of some extremes of racial prejudice that were then prevalent.  I saw the futility of a life devoted to politics with political success seen as an idol.

Nothing is new under the sun.  Ugly has always existed.  “Dear children, keep yourself from idols” (I John 5:21).

For those who like political biographies of past governors, I would recommend T. Harry Williams’ great book Huey Long or any books on a former California governor named Ronald Reagan.

For those interested in Oklahoma history, read the books by John Dwyer, such as The Oklahomans (volume one is out and volume two will be in time).  For a fun and uplifting account of Oklahoma life, read Dwyer’s book Shortgrass.

The Oklahomans

The Oklahomans

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