Sailing the ship of state

The political campaigning is ferninst us, and we can truly take up the Thanksgiving spirit. During the recent ``evils of the two lessers,'' I fell to thinking about Sen. Wallace H. White and how the Republic is impoverished by the loss of an art he brought to perfection - the skill at political oratory. When FDR first intoned ``My Friends...'' into a microphone, American politics went into a downhill slide, and the era of ballpark and public-square forensics was over. A candidate didn't need to make a speech again, as electronic marvels appeared. He didn't need lungs, and in time the teleprompter relieved him of even knowing what he was going to say.

Wallace H. White was our Maine senator who preceded our Gracious Lady Margaret Chase Smith at Washington - when he left politics she moved up from the House. Senator White was thus of a time to inherit the expertise and political know-how of a long generation of Maine greats - Hanny Hamlin, Jim Blaine, Tom Reed, Bill Fessenden, Bill Frye, Lot Morrill, and even Mel Fuller, who was silenced by his appointment as chief justice.

Those boys knew the ropes, and Wallace White had been a keen student. He owed a nod to Frank Fellows.

Frank had been perennial congressman from Maine's Fourth District (we have but two, now), and his campaigning was pure formality in a conceded contest. He was a spellbinder. Your heart went out for his great need for votes. He gripped you. He believed in righteousness and motherhood and waved the flag verbally in his perorations. He was a fine man and everybody said so.

His favorite conclusion was from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (also a Mainer!): ``Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State! Sail on, O Union, Strong and Great.'' There wouldn't be a dry eye in the house - except that rallies for Fellows would be in the ballpark or in the village square, and he spoke in the Grange Hall if it was raining. You could hear him for a mile. Everybody in the Fourth District believed that Frank Fellows wrote the Ship of State.

When Frank Fellows left politics, the Ship of State was picked up by Ralph O. Brewster, who had also studied the masters and had a long career as governor, congressman, and senator. When he recited ``Thou, too, sail on...,'' everybody in Maine thought he cribbed it from Frank Fellows.

One day Senator Brewster noticed that the Maine newspapers were referring to him by his initials - as happened previously with TR and FDR. The repetition of ROB bothered him, so he dropped the Ralph and was afterward Owen Brewster, legally.

When I was an apprentice journalist, the editor of our weekly paper assigned me to cover a campaign swing through our county. This was not because I was the political specialist, but because I was the paper's only reporter. We had to make do.

This meant a day's ride with Sen. Wallace H. White, whose car brought up the rear of a caravan - he came after the state representative and the county commissioners and the sheriff and such smaller fry. At each town line the caravan was met by the local Republican Committee and escorted to the ball diamond or the town square where a drummed-up crowd was waiting by a plank platform hung with bunting.

I was amazed at the ability of Senator White to come into a town and immediately get the warm attention of everybody - his voice was never a microphone voice, but a healthy lung-fed voice that carried a mile and overplayed train whistles. But in addition to that, he talked about things the people wanted to know about.

As we went from town to town his speech was different every time, yet there was a sameness to his delivery and three towns away he might make the same comment we'd just heard three towns back. I asked him about this, off the record as we rode along.

``They tell me Thomas B. Reed did what I do. I put together 20 speeches of five minutes apiece. One on fisheries, one on dairy farming, one on education, one on foreign trade, and so on. So I have about an hour and a half all glib and pat and memorized, and for my 15-minute speech I pick three of my little ones, depending on what town I'm in. I don't talk about dairy farming in Portland, and I don't talk about shoemaking at Old Orchard Beach. Next town, I'm going to use blueberries and sardines, and recite Thou Too, Sail On.''

In the next town Senator White ran off all the statistics about blueberries and sardines - hundreds of thousands of cases packed, percentages of increase, payrolls, dollars of investment, and a salute to the loyal workers whose efforts gave Maine this wonderful prosperity. Glib as glib can be. It's in the record and you can look it up. He carried that town 435 to 3.

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