FORT WAYNE – Beginning in the summer of 1940, when you attended a fair, political gathering or especially a church supper serving hot biscuits and fried chicken, you likely would spot a snow-white felt hat bobbing through the crowd.

The New York Times said it was utilized by Henry Schricker “as a symbol of clean government.” The Indianapolis Star stated: “Indiana’s most unique political trademark is the flashy fedora worn jauntily by Henry Schricker.”

Henry Schricker goes down in campaigning history because he cultivated and pounded his theme of a man in the white hat. A “Mr. Smith goes to Indianapolis” sort of vision. Someone honest who stood up for regular people and whose decision could not be purchased.

He didn’t have TV ads; He had a white hat. Ralph Brooks captured this clearly in his Indianapolis Star feature story on Schricker and his hat. “Schricker developed as unusual an advertisement for a candidate as can be found in Hoosier political history. In every county of the state there are people wearing little blue buttons on which are inscribed little white hats. On the buttons is no name, no slogan – nothing but the white hat. Nothing else is needed. Everybody knows that they are Schricker buttons.”

Schricker’s place in Indiana’s history is fairly secure for another reason, not unrelated to his white hat. In 1940 he was elected governor, in an era when they were only allowed one term until the early 1970s. Schricker, however, confounded the precedents by winning a second term in 1948 after pursuing other things for four years.

Henry Schricker was a true small-town populist, who was proud of his work as a volunteer firefighter. He headed a small bank in Hamlet, a place where there were not big banks. By purchasing a small-town newspaper, he became part of the newspaper network in Indiana that was important and critical to Indiana politicians from our state’s earliest days through at least Frank O’Bannon and Dan Quayle.

In 1943, Schricker was approached by FDR allies about joining the Democrat ticket but did not want to be considered because he wanted to focus on his last year as governor of Indiana. Indiana was still a swing state, having been carried by Wendell Willkie in 1940 when Schricker was a solid victor in the gubernatorial race. The only statewide Democrat to win.

In this extended series about political parties and their role in Indiana politics, I seemingly divided into a stark contrast between “the spoils system meant strong parties” and reform created “strong candidates that are evolving into people being able to purchase nominations, in Indiana and elsewhere.” That is over-stated in our early history.

After the Civil War, in the North, including Indiana, Republicans dominated for decades by “waving the bloody shirt.” The GAR, Grand Army of the Republic, had a major role in electing presidents and other positions for about 40 years. 

Our Indiana vice presidents became common because as the length of time moved away from the Civil War, Indiana became more of a swing state. Schuyler Colfax joined with Gen. U.S. Grant as a team. Charles Fairbanks with Teddy Roosevelt. Thomas Marshall with Woodrow Wilson. 

Democrat Marshall and Republican James Eli Watson were Indiana political powers for many years. In 1908 Marshall defeated Watson for governor, then went on to become vice president in 1912. Watson had been a top leader and ally of House Speaker Joe Cannon prior to his gubernatorial race. After his defeat, he won a Senate seat, rising to majority leader. 

Marshall was an “outside guy,” popular, quick with a quip. Watson was an “inside guy,” pulling the levers of government where leadership needed him. Multiple sources describe the smoke-filled room in which bosses discussed who to run in the 1920 election. Watson was felt to be the best candidate but a movement boomed for Harding, who was deemed more “electable” (i.e., handsome) and more controllable, whereas Watson was the opposite. 1920 was also unusual in that it most clearly showed the power of newspaper connections as a counterweight to political bosses. Harding owned the Marion Star in central Ohio. The Democrat nominee, James Cox, owned the Dayton Daily News. It was unusual in that the two candidates for president lived 90 miles apart.
The next big era of Indiana politics featured the larger-than-life Paul McNutt. He was an honor student at IU, went to Harvard Law, then to World War I. Upon returning, he was hired by Harvard but IU lured him back to become the youngest head of an accredited law school in the nation. His academic credentials made him an attractive candidate. 

His life story also shows no lack of personal confidence. He is repeatedly referred to as “extremely handsome” with snow-white hair. He was often called the “tall sycamore of the Wabash.” When he looked in his mirror, he saw a “future president” looking back at him, something he pursued for a long time even to the point of considering a challenge to FDR when he broke the tradition of American presidents serving no more than two terms. 

Frank McKinney was the boss, and national Democrat leader, aligned with McNutt. In working on our book, “Television in Fort Wayne 1953-2018,” McKinney and McNutt popped up in the fight to control first a radio station and then a television station to battle Republican newspaper and media owner Helene Foellinger. WKJG, our first station in Fort Wayne (now referred to as NBC Fort Wayne), stands for William Kunkle Journal Gazette (the Democrat paper in town). Kunkle was an ally of McNutt, as was Virgil Simmons, the tie that brought the Inskeep family into Journal-Gazette ownership that continues today. 

However, the TV station that McNutt and his allies controlled was WANE, the sister station to WISH in Indianapolis. WISH was, at the time, owned by McKinney and his allies. In fact, Broadcasting Magazine in the early 1950s cited Frank McKinney is the premier example of political people purchasing power in television.

The key point is this: While license bureau control, the 2% club, and highway jobs gave parties more power even in the days of max power for parties, to voters a series of powerful leaders was the focal point. 

Parties had a motive in still picking candidates who could win. The more popular the candidate, the more the parties were viewed as helpers rather than controllers.  For example, Thomas Taggart, the powerful Democrat political boss in Indianapolis, opposed Thomas Marshall because of his views on prohibition. 

Taking this into the modern era, Sen. Homer Capehart faced Birch Bayh for Senate in 1962. Capehart was hardly a poor man. Capehart-Farnsworth (Philo Farnsworth, inventor of television) was a powerful company in part because of the talent of Capehart in inventing things like the early version of the jukebox. I don’t know his wealth but he could have competed with today’s self-funders.

But Capehart lost to Bayh, whowas likeable, youthful and a brilliant debater. And then there was the song. “Hey look him over” had an incredible impact. Partly because Birch looked like it was 1962 and Homer looked like it was 1942. The song worked for much the same reason Mike Braun’s cardboard cutouts of Todd Rokita and Luke Messer worked. The congressmen did seem to look too similar, in their suits, talking issues when you watched the three debate each other in 2018. Just as if somebody compared Capehart and Bayh in 1962, and remembered the song and actually looked them over, saw, for lack of a better description, an old fogey versus an energetic young leader.

As we complete this series on parties, and how they might have more influence again, I felt it was essential to not overly romanticize the past versus the current challenges. Winning candidates have always had a mix of strategies. Strong candidates will always dominate the parties, the only question is how much. But down ballot, where most actual governing decisions are made other than the governor, strong parties can make a real difference in the quality of governance. 

But in between the extremes, there is a lot of room. As media changes the dynamic of what money can actually buy, and we all split into little self-reinforcing huddles, I argue that there is once again some opening for grassroots power. Politics is always evolving. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana and a regular HPI contributor.