In the early 1920s, a small pack of American Legionnaires convened a regular card game above the Princess Theatre in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. During one session, a member of the group mused, out of the blue, “It would be kind of nice to be president of the United States, wouldn’t it?”
Though he is now almost exclusively the subject of students of Hoosier history, there was a time when that man, Paul V. McNutt, was a national political star of the first order. He did not merely daydream about the presidency, but spent the majority of his adult life pursuing it and, if not for Franklin D. Roosevelt, likely would have obtained it. Tall, bronzed, well-tailored, with a shock of golden hair swept back atop his head, and given to grandiloquent oration, McNutt was the matinee idol of the New Deal and the most powerful governor in America.
This hefty new biography also demonstrates that McNutt was a central figure in the New Deal era despite his complicated, and not always friendly, relationship with Roosevelt. Just as interestingly, Dean J. Kotlowski establishes his subject as an important link in Democratic politics, connecting the social liberalism of FDR with the more muscular Cold War internationalism of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.
The decades leading up to the New Deal prepared McNutt for his stint on the national stage. While studying at Indiana University, he sharpened his pen on the student newspaper and cultivated a flair for the dramatic in the theater club. He joined the Army in 1917, but the Great War was over before he saw action. A law degree from Harvard in hand, he returned to IU, taught law, and longed for elective office. While he bided his time, McNutt dabbled in politics of other forms, ruthlessly disposing of (and replacing) his department’s dean, and then maneuvering himself into command of Indiana’s American Legion and, later, the national origination.
In that last position he insisted that, even in the absence of war, America must properly train and equip its armed forces, not only for the sake of vigilance but also as a deterrent to dictatorships abroad: “Adequate national defense is necessary to command respect,” he reasoned. By 1932, the Great Depression had leveled the Republican party, and in that year McNutt, whose work with the American Legion had cultivated a national profile, unsuccessfully maneuvered to steal the Democratic presidential nomination from Roosevelt during its national convention in Chicago. This pluck, which earned McNutt the enduring animosity of the soon-to-be president’s inner circle—James Farley called the Hoosier upstart “that platinum blonde SOB from Indiana”—was (in Kotlowski’s words) “the greatest miscalculation of his political life.” Indiana’s governorship served as a consolation prize.
McNutt’s legacy largely rests on his four years as Indiana’s chief executive, and Kotlowski fittingly scrutinizes his record. Corresponding to the growth of government in Washington, McNutt’s term witnessed a flurry of progressive lawmaking. In short order, after his 1933 inauguration, he enacted a statewide income tax and pension and relief plans, and meshed the state with the new national Social Security and Works Progress Administration programs. Ever the practitioner of machine politics, McNutt also centralized state government under his total command. This reorganization granted the governor sole discretion in the hiring and firing of state employees: Republicans were relentlessly cleared out of state government to make way for Democratic appointees and create a massive patronage system for McNutt and his allies.
The author, without hesitation, labels McNutt Indiana’s greatest governor. Other men who have held that office, both recently and over a century ago, may spring to mind as alternatives; and readers’ acceptance of the author’s assertion will depend on their ideological outlook. But McNutt was one of the state’s most effective and powerful chief executives, and to his credit, Kotlowski, who clearly admires his subject when it comes to progressive policy-making (less so his hawkish tendencies), is also candid about McNutt’s shortcomings. The governor, whose ego expanded as his power grew, threatened critical press outlets, bullied wayward legislators, and punished political rivals. He also further damaged his standing among Roosevelt’s brain trust by ordering the National Guard to break up strikes in Terre Haute.