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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 14

ONE BIG SITUATION after another developed in Cleveland and Ohio politics in the twenties. The showdown came on control of Ohio politics -- in Cincinnati, in Columbus, and in Cleveland. The big-city bosses were putting up a struggle to fend off what eventually turned out to be an inevitable tide against them. But while I was writing politics for The Cleveland Press and handling the City Desk, they were fighting -- and fighting spectacularly. The Press was fighting against them with all its power and resources, and that put me in the very center of it.

I was getting an education in the practical processes of American politics and government, an education unobtainable anywhere else. The "professors" were the politicians who sought to debauch it. The education

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included how votes were bought, how elections were rigged, how political machines operated from way back behind the scenes, how men got rich from this brand of politics -- how taxpayers footed the bill, and how good men and women were thwarted in their efforts to gain public office. It was a liberal education.

Maurice Maschke was one of the country's top big-city political bosses. Erudite and Harvard-educated, he was a successful lawyer, a shrewd political strategist and manipulator, a man of personal charm, and politically the most potent force in Ohio politics. He made and broke public officials almost at will. Personally, I liked him. Professionally, I stood squarely with our paper. I abhorred all that he stood for in "profit politics" -- the politics for which tribute was exacted, from which men grew rich and powerful beyond the influence government intended they should ever possess.

He didn't always win. Sometimes he lost big, the way he won big. One such instance was in 1921 when Fred Kohler, formerly Chief of Police, ran for Mayor.

Kohler, whom Theodore Roosevelt once described as the best Police Chief in the country, had been kicked out of office when he was caught, shoes in hand, coming out of the back door of his mistress' home. He had "come back" politically by getting himself elected to the County Commissioners' Board -- but he was out for complete vindication. Now, he was running for Mayor.

Maschke was supporting William S. FitzGerald, who had been City Law Director in Harry L. Davis's administration. But even his support was not enough. Kohler

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won as the result of a methodical, doorbell-ringing campaign. He didn't make a single speech.

The day Kohler was elected he disappeared from the city mysteriously. Nobody knew where he was. Everybody was looking for him. Every paper, of course, wanted an interview.

The next morning -- about three A.M. -- I received a telephone call at home. A voice said, "Don't ask any questions. Take a train and meet me at Green Springs. Don't tell anyone."

I recognized the voice.

Kohler and I had been fairly good friends. He tried to browbeat most people, but I wouldn't be browbeaten. He liked that. I was also fair -- or tried to be -- and he liked that too.

I took the train and arrived at Green Springs in midmorning. I knew Kohler would be taking the baths there, and I waited for him outside the bathhouse. He showed up with a towel around his midriff, and a batch of notes in one hand.

"A complete list of my cabinet appointments," he said, offering no further comment.

I started to ask questions.

"Louie, that's all there is," he said. "It's a scoop. That ought to be enough for you. I'll show you where the phone is."

It was 11:30, and our home-edition deadline was creeping up on me. I hot-footed to the phone and gave the office the story.

A question came over the phone: "Where are you?"

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I said I was not in a position to tell. They persisted and the Editor got on the wire, but Kohler was at my elbow, saying, "All bets are off, if anybody finds out where I am."

After I hung up, Kohler said, "Excuse me, Louie -- I'm going to take a nap. I've got a two-year headache ahead of me." Two years was the Mayor's term.

I took the train back to Cleveland. When I walked into the office I found a note from the Editor.

"This is one of the biggest political scoops we have ever had," the note read. "It means $5 a week more in your pay envelope. But for God's sake next time tell us that you're going some place, even if not where."

In his time Kohler painted everything the city owned -- including light poles -- an eye-shocking orange and black, and put his name on every piece of city property. He was the most controversial political figure of his time. He was curt, rude, profane. He ridiculed officials and the public, saving his worst barbs for the "do-gooders," and manipulated every branch of the government himself. And when he died, better than a million dollars was found in his safety deposit boxes.

The Press ripped him, crusaded against him, and leveled its most explosive editorial artillery against him. In spite of this -- and knowing not only that I wrote many of the paper's editorials, but that my opinion of him as a public official was worse than that which the paper expressed -- Fred Kohler gave me more exclusive stories than any man who ever held public office in Cleveland. I was never to know why, unless it was because I never backed away from him. I simply stood toe-

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to-toe whenever he started his withering sarcasm or outright profanity.

On one occasion, when I hung the phone up on him in the middle of one of his frequent explosions, he called back and gave me a good story. He didn't apologize. He just gave me the story -- and then in the middle of it he hung up. Maybe he felt that evened things up. He was like that.