Iron Range publisher-legislator often had it right — a century ago | Opinion

Rufus W. Hitchcock was a newspaper publisher on the Iron Range and a legislator. Photo courtesy of the Legislative Reference Library.

A century ago, Rufus W. Hitchcock published the first daily newspaper on Minnesota’s Iron Range, the Hibbing Daily Tribune. As publisher and editor of the Tribune, Hitchcock resembled many such figures then and now. His carefully worded editorials warned of moral rot but also that times change. He thought both sides had a good point about a lot of things. His perpetual thesis repeated “We will see.” 

Hitchcock’s Page 2 editorial column in the 1910s and ‘20s appeared as a string of 200-word mini-essays inspired by the national stories that rolled off the Associated Press wire, then literally a telegraph wire. A coal strike in West Virginia. (Stop that.) An admirable speech by Charles Evans Hughes. (Finally, a proper secretary of state.) A deformed baby somewhere in the Heartland. (What a pity.)

Each one applied a sort of conventional wisdom to the day’s headlines. The effect is similar to a blog written by your uncle, the insurance salesman, who has retired early to become an author of spy novels but whose material is mostly about things he saw on the news.

Yet every once in a while “Hitch” would fire off a good one. He could be funny. And oddly enough, his material improved when local voters decided to send him to the State House of Representatives in 1918. Hitchcock still published the newspaper, supported by a staff of writers and editors, only now his legislative reports came from inside the ornate halls of Cass Gilbert’s Minnesota State Capitol building. 

Hitchcock, a high-minded Republican in what was then a nonpartisan Legislature, narrated his own votes and those of his colleagues with the voice of a man who was in the thick of the fight. And yet he avoided the bromides and spin you might expect. Bafflingly, he wrote exactly what he thought, assuming the voters would appreciate his honesty. Mostly, they did.

Exactly 100 years ago, during the legislative budget session of 1921, Hitchcock spilled the beans on the performative behaviors and warped psychology of the Legislature. His words might amuse and perhaps inspire veterans of today’s legislative process.

“Successful law-making seems to require a considerable amount of bluff and bunk,” wrote Hitchcock in the Hibbing Daily Tribune on Feb. 10, 1921. “To gesture and pose until you make your name disfigure the front page is quite as essential as to work or to be sincere. If you can make yourself believe that pose is a high ideal and that gesture is a burning ardor for the common weal, and it is even easier to humbug yourself than it is to humbug other people, almost will you be persuaded that you are a statesman. It is a delightful feeling.”

I’ve now been around long enough to watch junior lawmakers become senior lawmakers in real time. Far too often they confuse the favorable partisan index of their districts for evidence of genius. To them, each vote granted to them is a Valentine, even when it might better resemble a muscle reflex.

Hitchcock, in 1921, continued: 

“The successful law maker is usually sincere and earnest and if he falls somewhat short of Solomon he at least levels up well with P.T. Barnum,” wrote Hitchcock. “He seldom forgets Bluff and Bunk. A touch of it here and a stroke of it there, sometimes premeditated but more often instinctive, makes a hit with the folks back home and sometimes paves the way to Congress.”

Observe today’s legislators posturing during committee hearings, each attempting to secure the 12 and a half seconds of footage that will cement their next campaign. 

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Again, here’s Hitchcock:

“You see a lot of this sort of thing in the Legislature,” he wrote. “You see so much of it that you get to doing it yourself. Walk and act like a great man even if your head is as empty as a toy balloon. Shakespeare said it differently, but most lawmakers and Shakespeare have the same idea: ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not.’ They are doing it all around me, so I know it is the proper thing, but all the time I am scared stiff somebody will stick a pin in me and find I am nothing but a shriveled bit of legislative rubber.”

But Hitchcock had not abandoned hope. He said virtue could be located even within this political circus tent.

“Probe beneath the pose and the gesture, however, and you will almost certainly find an honest purpose and a high ideal. A real desire to do the right thing and to be useful burns under every legislative coat. If we didn’t know that the folks back home just love gestures and bunk, and if we didn’t love it so much ourselves, we would get twice as much done in half the time and adjourned sine die about Washington’s Birthday. But it would not be nearly so impressive, and none of us would get to be railroad and road commissioner that way.”

As candidates for governor emerge from the back benches and highest ranks of the Legislature in 2021, we wonder how much bluff and bunk we must endure before the business is done. Probably a great deal.

And yet, if the past is any guide for the present, when the work is done, however it is done, it will be because of sacrifices made by the least showy members of the Legislature. 

Concluded Hitchcock, “The Legislature is often a place of make-believe, but its members, I find, are for the most part honestly and earnestly trying to do their best for Minnesota and folks back home.”

Perhaps the 2021 session will produce a workmanlike outcome like the one described 100 years ago. Might we even hope lawmakers agree to generational change for the greater good? I think the late R.W. Hitchcock might agree that such a notion is optimal, but hardly typical. 

After all, that’s no way to build a statewide social media profile.