U.S. Attorney Maurice Milligan, with the support of Federal District Court Judge Albert Reeves, went after Pendergast. After failing to convict him on influence peddling, Milligan pursued him for not paying taxes on the income—the same technique that had led to the downfall of gangster Al Capone in Chicago. In 1939, Pendergast was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to federal prison, breaking his power once and for all.
While the federal investigation into Pendergast was still ongoing, Truman, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, tried to get Milligan dismissed. In 1938, he attempted to block Milligan’s reappointment as U.S. Attorney even though he was a Roosevelt appointee with the support of Missouri’s other Democratic senator, Bennett "Champ" Clark.
On February 15, 1938, Truman personally filibustered Milligan’s reconfirmation by the Senate, calling him incompetent, immoral and guilty of using "Hitler-Stalin tactics." Time magazine called Truman’s speech "one of the bitterest…ever heard on the Senate floor."
Despite Truman's efforts, Milligan was endorsed by the Senate and went on to bring down his close friend and mentor, Pendergast. But Truman never forgot what he had done. Within days of becoming president in 1945, after the death of Roosevelt, one of Truman’s first acts was to fire Milligan. When Attorney General Francis Biddle protested Truman’s action, he fired Biddle, too.
In other ways as well, Democratic presidents have long used federal law enforcement agencies for political purposes. Roosevelt often had his political enemies audited by the Internal Revenue Service. He also used the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and tap the phones of journalists and newspaper publishers who opposed his policies.
In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and President Lyndon Johnson also used the FBI and IRS to investigate and harass their political opponents. As is well known, they bugged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s phones and hotel rooms just to gain political intelligence—falsely justifying their actions on the grounds that King was in league with the Communists.
The point of this history lesson is not to excuse or justify anything Bush and Gonzales may have done, which seems mainly stupid rather than malicious, but to suggest that Democrats would be wise not to push their protests too far. Their own presidents have done far worse with less justification. That's a fact.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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