Charles Curtis is one of our most obscure Vice Presidents, known only for being part Indian, as they used to call it, and he was proud of it.
Charlie the Kaw
Charles Curtis (1860-1936) was a Kansan, born as the Civil War was getting under way. He was one-eighth Kaw Indian. His mother died when he was a baby, and he was ping-pong-raised by his two grandmothers until he reached puberty. He personally enjoyed his “Indian” life, and expressed a desire to remain within the tribe. His “Indian” grandmother sided with his “Curtis” grandma, however, and suggested that it would be better for him to get an education “on the outside.”
Even though Charlie was an indifferent student and never graduated high school, he managed to read law while he supported himself as a hack-driver. When business was slow, he drove under a gas-lamp to study. His real diligence made up for his so-so acumen, and he passed the Kansas bar and began a practice.
But the political bug bit him, and in the 1880s, the Republican Party was the party of choice. He began supporting Republican candidates, and in a short time, was elected to the State Legislature.
Charlie the Politician
Charles Curtis, by his own admission “one-eighth Kaw and 100% Republican”, was a natural in politics. He was a nice looking fellow with an easy charm and the politician’s glad-hand. He was happy to criss-cross his county for votes and fellowship, and the populace responded.
During the 1890s, a Kansas editor named William Allen White was making a name for himself in journalism, and spent a couple of days traveling with the young legislator as he made rounds in his district. Frequently, White noticed that Curtis seemed to be consulting a little back notebook and mumbling to himself. Upon closer observation, he realized that the notebook was a list of names of everyone Curtis met during his travels, along with salient information that might be useful. Names, spouse names, town, county, what they did for a living, age, children, and distinguishing attributes. And in mumbling, White realized that Curtis was committing this information to memory. Several notebooks would be filled over the years.
If he was going to a certain town, he reviewed all their residents in his book so he could greet them by name, ask after their “ailing mother,” congratulate them on the new baby or whatever else was important in their lives. The voters believed that Curtis remembered them, and he was considered their personal “friend.”
Charlie Curtis went to all the state and county fairs, the political rallies, the local contests and events. This attention to his constituency practically guaranteed that he would continually win his district – even though much of populist-Kansas was leaning heavily toward the party of William Jennings Bryan.
Charlie in Leadership
Few people today realize that Charles Curtis was a viable candidate for high office during the early part of the 20th Century. It was not so much because of his leadership as it was because of his followership. He checked in with the Republic Party power brokers regularly, and voted a straight-as-an-arrow line. The Republicans sent him to Congress. And then to the Senate, where he rose in their ranks, eventually becoming Majority Leader.
The consensus of future politicians wagged that when a new bill was introduced, Charlie Curtis would immediately seek out the moguls and ask, “How do you want me to vote?” And he voted accordingly. He seldom introduced important legislation, never rocked the boat, and was not inclined to disagree – especially when he could charm and disarm.
During the 1920s, Charlie Curtis was regularly shortlisted as a candidate for President – and wanted the office. He had hoped for the Vice Presidency under Coolidge, but Coolidge wasn’t impressed. Curtis wanted the Presidential nod in 1928, but he had no chance against Herbert Hoover, who had a much more impressive resume. He became Hoover’s running mate and Vice President. Hoover wasn’t impressed either, and gave Curtis virtually nothing to do, and never sought his advice or assistance.
Indeed, when the Gershwins penned their Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Of Thee I Sing,” the persona of the ineffectual and unrecognized fictional Vice President Throttlebottom was based on the public’s impression of Curtis.
Charlie’s Data Base
In the early part of the 20th Century, there were no computers or mechanisms for large-scale data storage. Whatever information was collected would be filed by hand, and retrieved similarly. Politicians with a memory for names and faces were truly blessed. Curtis may have had a memory for names and faces, but it was earned and learned over years of work.
By the 1920s, his little notebooks became a system of index cards of every voter in Kansas – and elsewhere, if they were likely to have an impact on his career. Names, spouses, parents, children, children’s spouses, grandchildren. Residences, occupations, issues of concern – and whatever else might be of importance.
As time went on, the card file was sub-divided according to “special interests.” Doctors. Farmers. Merchants. School teachers. If specific legislation was on the docket for those interests, Curtis could put a substantive list together quickly and circulate the Republican point of view.
Everywhere he went, business cards were collected and more index cards were filed and cross-filed. Even those politicians who thought of Charles Curtis as little more than a political cipher were impressed.
Today Charlie Curtis may be considered a political hack of little regard, but he was a first-rate data base manager way ahead of his time!
Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974
Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing