The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


itT was near the close of a long session -- a session which had lasted a winter and a spring and a summer, and threatened to push itself into the first days of autumn, when Wharton, the Western member, who had been in the house five terms, concluded to pack his valise and go home. The campaign was growing warm. Nearly all of the county conventions had been held, and a majority of the delegates elected were instructed for him, which insured his renomination if the three remaining counties in the district did not go solidly against him. He had laid his plans mechanically for a renomination, and if he had stopped to ask himself whether or not he really wanted to come back to congress, he would probably have said no. He was tired, but he did not know why. He thought he needed rest, that he had been overworked, that he was played out; yet his private secretary, who kept the run of the pension business and did his routine work, did not seem tired, the private secretary even had refused a vacation, and it was at the secretary's own request that he stayed in Washington.

     But Wharton, the Western member, was tired, dead tired; and he pictured to himself the pleasures of going back to his home in the little town of Baxter, where people on the streets who had seen him grow up from a boy and called him "Tom," really were glad to see him. Just before he had left his rooms for the departing train his private secretary had handed him the day's clippings; and after he had been riding for an hour or so, while he as fumbling in his pockets for a match, they tumbled out in a tight little roll. He idly read them. He was used to unjust abuse and sick of uncalled-for praise. The first clipping was taken from the Queen City Daily Herald; it bore a Washington date-line, and was introduced by the words, "Special to the Herald." It read:

They say here that Wharton of the Fourth District, is beginning to feel uneasy. He has received several letters from his district that have convinced him that the Populist cyclone has shaken down several lengths of fence in Lee, Meade and Smith counties. Bill Heatley's strength is said to be developing down there wonderfully. The Hon. Ike Russell, who was here last week looking for a job as receiver of the Baxter National bank, was in close consultation with Wharton three of the four nights he was here, and the "old man" is wearing a hunted look and is talking to himself. They say down in the Fourth district that it will take more than "Our Tom" Wharton's hug to explain away his silver vote.

     Wharton knew the correspondent and only smiled as he flipped the wadded clipping out of the car window. There was a short editorial clipping from the same paper. It said:

The dispatches say that "Our Tom" Wharton is wiggling in his seat and trying to project his astral body in the Fourth district to see how his fences are, and at the same time to keep his corporeal body in Washington to look after Ike Russell's pie plate. If "Our Tom" doesn't fall down in his anxiety to keep one foot in the "bloody Fourth" and the other at the political bake shop, he must be either a Colossus of Rhodes or a "quadrille dancer."

     Wharton dropped that on the floor and read another from the Smith County Farmer's Friend. It was long and full of double leads and "break lines" and italics and exclamation points. It was abusive in the extreme and closed with this tirade:

Now, let us reason together. Tom Wharton has been in Congress ten years; he had been judge six years before entering Congress, and county superintendent four years before he was judge. Twenty years has this man been in office; his total salary in that time has been only $70,000. Yet he is rated by the commercial agencies at one-half million dollars. He has banks and railroad stocks; he owns mortgages and farms. Where did he get them? His time has been sold to the people; he has been false to every trust; he has voted with the East on the money question; he has neglected the farmers at every turn. He is a garden-seed congressman; he comes out here and haw-haws around, and then goes back to vote with Wall street. Wall street knows its friends, and "Our Tom" is worth one-half million dollars, lives in a mansion filled with hammered brass at Baxter, while the farmer foots the bills.

     Wharton knew that the editor of the Farmer's Friend had been a candidate for the postoffice at Smith City; that he himself had lent the editor money and held his note for $500. He put the clipping in his pocket-book with a sigh, and looked through the other scraps of paper. There were perhaps a dozen -- a few of them laudatory to an offensive degree, some clearly bids for money, and the rest a fair discussion of his candidacy.

     Wharton's first week in the district was spent at Baxter. He did practically nothing to secure his renomination, although wise-looking men from each of the three doubtful counties came nearly every day to Baxter and went directly from the train to Wharton's house. They all wanted money or promises of "assistance"; and each of them told how some precinct could be "swung into line" by a little work on the part of the certain third person -- always nameless, who would need money for cigars and livery hire. Wharton put these statesmen off, and they went away doubting whether they would support the "old man" or fight him. The congressman's presence in the little town was an event, and he had callers all day long who seemed to need help in different ways. Soldiers desired pensions; mothers asked for positions in Washington for their sons; young women called to see about clerkships; widows, whose husbands he had known, came to borrow money. He was honestly glad to see all these people and, when he could, he helped them; he rarely made an enemy, even though he always was frank.

     It was Saturday evening, and Wharton was just entering on his second week at home, and he and his friend, "Ike" Russell, were sitting on the southern porch of the congressman's home. Their wives and daughters were in the parlor around the piano, and the two men were at that preliminary stage of conversation in which ideas are conveyed by grunts and monosyllables.

     "What did Hughey of Smith City want?" asked Russell.

     "About two hundred, more or less," said (the) congressman.

     "Hughey's a thief; he'd spend about $25, and the rest would go into his jeans."

     "I suppose so," Wharton answered. "Say we lose Smith county!"

     "Well, you say," said his friend. "Did see Higgins, from Lee Valley! He told me last month that he had five fellows could swing Lee county for $100 a piece."

     "Ugh," grunted the congressman. "That makes $2,300 so far, if I come down."

     "Well, that's cheaper than you got off before -- by several hundred."

     Wharton yawned, and the silence that was broken only by the tinkle of the cow bells in the valley below the town, the splash of water over the dam across the river that runs around the village. Occasionally the sound of voices singing on the water or the notes of a guitar would come up on the gusts of wind. The piano in the parlor was silent, and the moon was barely visible under the eastern corner of the porch. The men had smoked in silence a few moments when Wharton said:

     "Ike, what is the real issue in this campaign?"

     "I dunno, old man; sometimes I think it's the tariff; sometimes I think it's silver; and then at other times I just give it all up. What's your idea, Tom?"

     The congressman did not reply at once; he seemed to be pulling his ideas together for a longer speech than usual. He twisted his gray moustache nervously; he looked askance at his friend, who was apparently listening to the music that had just started up again in the parlor. Wharton went over to the garden hose which was turned upon a shrub, changed its course, came back, relighting his cigar, and said:

     "B'Godfrey, I don't know, Ike, I don't know. Do you remember when we used to cut corn at six cents a shock, and go to school down the valley where those cow bells were tinkling a little while ago! We used sit on the fence of nights like this and talk that 'way into the night about what we were going to do."

     "Yesl" said the politician, expectantly.

     "Yes, and I used to hope to go to congress some day; we used to talk of the oldtime statesmen and read their speeches in the school readers -- Clay and Calhoun and the great men whose names we knew as boys. They were tall, thin, spare men in swallow-tailed coats and chokers, and hair that looked fierce and statesmanlike. Do you remember the congressman from this district forty years ago; how dignified he was, what a really great man he must have been? He Lived greatness every hour of his life. The men who went to the territorial legislature, -- how superior they seemed, with their tall hats and close buttoned coats! Ike, do you remember when I went to the legislature in the winter of '70, and came back discouraged and disappointed: the sham of it all -- the row and the rings and the schemes?"

     Russell would have interjected some reminiscent joke on the young statesman, but Wharton went on as if to keep the thread of the conversation in his teeth.

     "Yes, yes, Ike, I know about my plug hat and all that; and then do you remember how I ran for judge and was nominated for congress back in '84 as a dark horse on the three hundreth ballot, and how I was elected and told the people from the box down by the bonfire in the public square that I was going to be worthy of the honor? Ike, the tears I shed there were honest tears, for God knows how proud I was. All these ten years were before me, and what a great ten years I hoped they would be. I thought of my plans as a boy -- you and me on the fence down in the valley, Ike -- and I looked over all the names in congress then -- ten years ago I mean -- and they seemed great names to me. I could hardly wait to get to Washington to see the men and to be one of them. I was such a boy, Ike -- ten years ago."

     Each man puffed his cigar in a moment's pause. Wharton lighted a fresh one. Russell thought in so many words: "It's one of Tom's talkative nights."

     Wharton took up the thread where it had dropped.

     "Here I am, Ike, a flesh-and-blood statesman. I've been in it and through it. I've as high a place in the organization of the House as any of the great men we used to read about. I've passed a pension bill -- and the old soldiers, for whom I worked night and day during six months, have resolutions against me. I have had my name on a silver bill for which the fiat fellows have abused me. I've led my party through two successful fights. And what is there in it! You know, as well I do, that it is hollow, -- all a hollow show. What's the use of it? Why should a man wear his life out up there in that city to keep his name in print! There was a man named Keifer -- an Ohio man -- who was speaker of the house once. Who that reads the papers knows anything of him today. Yet he worked his life nearly out to be a statesman. Where are the seconds in the Blaine-Conklin fight? Ike, there's nothing in it. I know, Ike, there's nothing in it but ashes."

     The politician said nothing; he did not know how the talk was turning.

     "Ike," resumed the congressman, taking a firmer hold on his cigar, and tightly grasping the arms of the chair, "Ike, what's the use? Here comes a lot of Bills and Dicks and Toms and Harrys, who want me to put up $2,300 and prom ises that I'll be two years working to keep, just to go back there. I go back there and work and fret and stew for this, that and the other thing that I don't care a cent for. I have no heart in it; I feel like a sneak; I have to swallow my pride; I've no ideals; there is no reward; nothing but higgling with a lot of mercenary, impecunious thieves here at home, and log-rolling with a lot of shrewder shysters of the same sort in congress in Washington. If I go on, I must by my way in; buy my own slavery, Ike, slavery to the fellows I despise. I know I've done it three or four times, but I kept thinking the end would someday justify the means. But it doesn't; it never will; it's a fraud, Ike, and I'm done. I am going to be honest just for once in my life. I don't have to go to congress; I can be lots happier here -- here with my friends and my family and -- now don't laugh old man -- and -- and -- my honor. That's a little stagey, Ike, but that's not the real issue in this campaign and I'm out of this fight. Let's go in and hear the music, Ike. That's the end of it, I've thought it all over and I've decided."

     Probably most men -- at least most moralizing men -- would have called the "old man" weak had they seen him the following Monday making out a check payable to Isaac Russell for $2,300. But most men do not know what it is to worship an idol for a lifetime, and they cannot understand how a man can love his idol even when he knows to his bitter sorrow that it is only clay.

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