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Editorial: Where did Styles Bridges’s money come from? And where did it go?

Members of the Senate Preparedness subcommittee met to complete plans for a swift inquiry into the nation's missile program, Nov. 22, 1957.  Shown attending the session are, from left: Edwin Weisl, New York corporation lawyer, who will act as counsel; and Senators Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), chairman, and Styles Bridges (R-N.H.).  The group has tentatively scheduled five days of hearings with the aim of speeding up the missile program.  (AP Photo)

Members of the Senate Preparedness subcommittee met to complete plans for a swift inquiry into the nation's missile program, Nov. 22, 1957. Shown attending the session are, from left: Edwin Weisl, New York corporation lawyer, who will act as counsel; and Senators Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), chairman, and Styles Bridges (R-N.H.). The group has tentatively scheduled five days of hearings with the aim of speeding up the missile program. (AP Photo)

On the cool new Politico Magazine website last week was an old, old New Hampshire story – but what a doozy.

Todd S. Purdum, national editor of Vanity Fair, wrote an evocative piece about mid-20th century Washington based on a never-before-published transcript of interviews with longtime Washington insider Bobby Baker. As Purdum describes it, Baker recalled “an age when senators drank all day, indulged in sexual dalliances with secretaries and constituents, accepted thousands of dollars in bribes and still managed to pass the most important legislation of the 20th century.”

In the thick of it was New Hampshire Sen. Styles Bridges – “Mr. Conservative,” to those who knew him. He was a staunch Republican, for sure, but that didn’t stop him from cultivating relationships across the aisle, out of genuine friendship, expedience or some combination of the two. Among those he did business with: Lyndon Johnson.

Baker, an aide to Sen. Johnson, describes accompanying Johnson to Bridges’s funeral in New Hampshire in 1961, after LBJ had become vice president:

“When Johnson was vice president, he invited me to go with him to Senator Styles Bridges’s funeral. . . . Doloris Bridges (the widow) was very fond of Vice President Johnson. She said, ‘Lyndon, I need some advice.’ She said, ‘Styles has got $2 million in cash here, and I don’t know how to handle it.’ Vice President Johnson, being the true coward, he said, ‘Talk to Bobby.’ So I told her, ‘The banks are the government. If you put it in the bank, you are dead meat. Whatever you do, do not put that money in the bank.’ I don’t know what the hell she did with it.”

And there’s the mystery. Bridges, according to his biographer, was one of the least wealthy men ever elected governor of New Hampshire, before winning his Senate seat in 1936. A quarter century later, according to Baker, he was sitting on $2 million in cash.

Was it true? Where had it come from? And, equally important, where did it go?

Gettysburg College historian Michael Birkner, a former Concord Monitor editorial writer, might just have the answer. In researching a book about a different political figure, Birkner conducted an interview in 1988 with Dick Upton, the former speaker of the New Hampshire House and, as Birkner describes him, the single most respected establishment figure in state politics in his day. Upton told Birkner a slightly different story about the mystery of Bridges’s money.

“What he told me was this: Yes, Bridges had money stashed away. Yes, Doloris Bridges was concerned about what to do with it. Yes, she came to him – Upton – and asked what to do with it.”

According to Upton, Bridges was sitting on $120,000 or $130,000 in cash – not $2 million, but quite a bundle nonetheless.

And here was Upton’s startling advice to the widow: Give the money to the state Republican Party.

Upton figured that if Doloris Bridges held onto the money, she’d have to pay a tax and could even get snared in costly IRS litigation for past nonpayment of taxes. In fact, Sherman Adams, the former governor and presidential chief of staff, was at that moment battling the IRS in a similar matter. Upton told Doloris she could make a legitimate argument that Styles was only holding the money to advance the cause of Republican candidates.

And Upton said the widow ultimately took his advice.

Was Upton looking to help save Styles Bridges’s reputation? Birkner doesn’t think so. The two weren’t close; in fact, Upton was part of the “State House Gang” that Bridges regularly disparaged.

What are we to make of such a tale, here in 2013?

“If you’re going to call Styles Bridges a crook, you’re going to call half of the United States Senate a crook,” Birkner says. “Pre-Watergate, almost anything went, when it came to the transfer of money.”

Indeed, Baker describes such a “transfer” in an earlier memoir: “I was asked to transmit $5,000 from Lyndon B. Johnson” to Styles Bridges. “As was the Washington practice, Johnson handed me the boodle in cash. ‘Bobby,’ he said, ‘Styles Bridges is throwing an “appreciation dinner” for himself up in New Hampshire sometime next week. Fly up there and drop this in the kitty and be damn sure that Styles knows it comes from me.’ ”

The rules governing political money back then – how much politicians could take, what had to be reported, what they were allowed to do with it – were almost nonexistent. Styles Bridges was a beneficiary, sometimes even with help from one of the capital’s most powerful Democrats. The state GOP, it appears, benefited too. Still, half a century later, there’s solace to be taken in this strange tale. Efforts to regulate the influence of money in American politics have surely been stymied in recent years, but the Bridges story makes clear that even today’s compromised system represents progress over what came before.

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