The book is called Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. It was written by journalist Marc C. Johnson and came out this year. It’s 370 pages with another 116 pages of notes.
There are only three library copies in the state right now - two in Billings in one in Hamilton. I managed to get the Hamilton copy a few days ago and I’d like to share some excerpts from it.
We'll focus on the 1910s and 1920s. Wheeler had been a legislator before moving up to U.S. attorney. He lost the latter position for political reasons, but then ran for governor in 1920 (losing big) and then U.S. Senate in 1922 (winning big).
Early-on in the book, Johnson calls Wheeler “the most powerful politician Montana ever produced,” describing him as a skeptic who “distrusted Wall Street detested concentrated power, and rejected centralization and regimentation.”
“I have been accused of almost everything but timidity,” Wheeler wrote in his autobiography, which came out sixteen years after he’d lost his last Senate election. “My opponents taught me self-reliance - and that the best defense is a good offense.”
His son Edward said his father could “look any man in the eye, call him an SOB, and never let the smile leave his face.”
The Hysteria of WWI
“Neighbors accused each other of being German spies, German airships were reported over the Bitterroot Valley, and the council banned public meetings, held mysterious secret sessions, and condemned anyone who questioned its actions. Hundreds of Montanans were arrested and dozens ultimately went to prison with sentences of up to twenty years and fines of up to $20,000.”
Wheeler’s 1920 Gubernatorial Bid and the Red Scare
“Driven from office [U.S. attorney], his fledgling political career in tatters, and with reputation sullied, B.K. Wheeler almost immediately launched a political comeback, setting his sights on winning the Montana governorship in 1920. Wanting to advance progressive ideas, wield political power, and settle old scores, Wheeler and his wife - she was upset as he was about his treatment by Democrats and the Anaconda Company - discussed whether he should run as a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent. He settled on staying in the Democratic Party, but he also openly championed the ideas of, and was endorsed by, the Nonpartisan League (NPL), an underfinanced, fragile coalition of radical farmers, labor leaders, socialists, and perhaps even a few Bolsheviks. The NPL effectively hijacked the Montana Democratic Party in 1920 and installed Wheeler as the movement’s gubernatorial candidate.”
“The chief plank in Mr. B.K. Wheeler’s program is to drive the Anaconda Copper Mining Company out of the state.” - Great Falls Tribune, 1920
“To be a ‘Leaguer’ meant paying annual dues to support the organization, and recruiters fanned out across North Dakota to sign up every farmer. ‘Find out the damn fool’s hobby,’ one league organizer advised, ‘ and then talk it. If he likes religion, talk Jesus Christ; if he’s against the government, damn the Democrats; if he’s afraid of whiskey, preach prohibition; if he wants to talk hogs, talk hogs - talk anything he’ll listen to, but talk, talk, until you get his God-damned John Hancock to a check for six dollars.”’
“By 1920 the league boasted twenty thousand dues-paying members in Montana, many living in the northeastern corner of the state, an area described by some as Montana’s ‘red corner.’”
“In 1919, a University of Montana economics professor, Louis Levine, lost his teaching and research post for producing a small, scholarly book, The Taxation of Mines in Montana. Levine arrived at the hardly astounding conclusion that the Anaconda Company had been paying little or no taxes for years. The company retaliated by first applying pressure to stop publication of Levine’s study and then successfully demanding that the professor be fired. Montana legislators called for investigations of the university, and legislation was introduced to eliminate the position of chancellor since, it was alleged, the incumbent was obviously ‘too socialist’ for the job.”
“Not wanting to spend the night in jail, Wheeler scheduled his rally and speech at a ranch just outside of town [Dillon]. Accounts of precisely what happened at the rally vary greatly, but apparently, even before Wheeler got to his feet to speak, a crowd of angry men threatened him. A scuffle broke out, a knife was produced, someone was stabbed, and in the confusion Wheeler and an escort managed a hasty getaway...Wheeler waited out a tense night in the sealed boxcar, with a friendly farmer standing guard outside with a rifle.”
“In a speech in Hamilton, Wheeler said he would see to it that the state capitol was moved from the Hennessey Building, Anaconda’s headquarters in Butte, back to Helena where it belonged.”
“The  election was the worst defeat since statehood for a Montana gubernatorial candidate and amounted to a Republican sweep of historic proportions. Montana Democrats won just 9 of 108 seats in the state house of representatives, and only ten League-endorsed candidates were elected to the legislature.”
“Historian Richard Ruetten has correctly attributed Wheeler’s defeat to four major factors: the national Republican landslide that carried Warren Harding into the White House made 1920 an extraordinarily difficult year for Democrats, Wheeler received scant newspaper support and generally what notice he did receive was punishingly negative, his campaign was woefully short of money, and the defection of Senator Myers made it easy for rank-and-file Democrats to abandon the entire Democratic ticket..”
“If Wheeler’s battles as U.S. attorney had constituted an undergraduate degree in politics, then the 1920 campaign for governor had been a graduate-level course. Wheeler would never again demonstrate the level of hostility toward Montana’s economic powers that he displayed in 1920, and the seeds of Wheeler’s fierce anticommunism can be found in the drubbing he took in the governor’s race.”
Wheeler’s 1922 U.S. Senate Run
Wheeler “wisely said he would refuse to run if the Nonpartisan League insisted on endorsing him.”
“Wheeler ran an effective primary campaign in a four-candidate field, focusing almost exclusively on national issues, including highlighting mounting evidence of corruption in the Harding administration...Wheeler also blasted the high railroad freight rates impacting Montana farmers…”
“Wheeler also benefited from a lackluster opponent who, even given his substantial political experience, proved an inept candidate. Attempting to appeal to the state’s hard-pressed farmers, [sitting-U.S. Congressman for the eastern part of the state, Carl Riddick of Fergus County] began referring to himself as ‘the only dirt farmer’ in Congress, a claim that turned to dust when Democrats pointed out that Riddick did not own a single acre of farmland.”
Johnson, p xi, xii, xiii, 18, 26, 28-9, 31, 33, 36, 38-9.