The alleged body-slamming of a reporter by Montana House candidate Greg Gianforte seems like a reasonable moment to contemplate the very long history of congressmen behaving badly toward one another and members of the media — arming themselves for floor debates, beating the tar out of one another and even imprisoning reporters.
“People often ask me if it’s ever been this bad before,” said Joanne Freeman, a Yale history professor who next year will publish “The Field of Blood,” a history of political violence. “I have to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, it’s actually been worse.’ ”
Freeman recalled the case of Rep. Waddy Thompson (S.C.), “whose physique was alarming,” as one account put it, “and whose spirit was thought to be like that of the fiery Hotspur.” Thompson did not care for Lund Washington Jr. and William W. Curran, the beat reporters from the Congressional Globe. Why? They didn’t give him enough hot type.
“He made a tongue attack upon them in the House, and was prepared to attack them with arms elsewhere,” according to the annual report of the National Shorthand Reporters’ Association. “The reporters prepared themselves for defense.”
At this point, it’s helpful to remember there were no metal detectors back then.
“Mr. Washington, a gentleman of much strength, carried with him a heavy bludgeon into the reporter’s box,” the Shorthand report said. “Mr. Curran was provided with a dagger or knife, sharpened especially for use, in case of necessity.”
There was just so much agitation back then, even without CNN.
In retrospect, the love-hate feelings lawmakers had for journalists weren’t all that different from today. They liked seeing their name in the paper. They did not like scoops about their transgressions. For reporters, this could become very uncomfortable. Beyond threats of violence, there was imprisonment.
In 1848, John Nugent, a New York Herald reporter, was arrested by the sergeant at arms and held for a month in a Senate committee room after breaking a story about a secret treaty to end the Mexican-American War. Other than it being against his will, Nugent’s confinement wasn’t all that bad.
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
“Each evening he accompanied the sergeant at arms to that officer’s home for a good meal and a comfortable night’s sleep,” according to a Senate history.
The paper even doubled his salary. Nugent kept filing his columns daily back to New York. His dateline — “Custody of the Sergeant at Arms” — is one of the best in newspaper history and an early, instructive lesson in snark.
Nugent didn’t hold a grudge against his captors. Years later, he actually ran for the U.S. Senate, but lost.
As for Waddy Thompson, the reporters never got a chance to stab or bludgeon him. They chose a more damaging response to his threats, cutting off his political oxygen.
“No matter what Waddy Thompson said in debate, the reporters made no note of it,” the Shorthand history said. “They treated him as a blank.”
Imagine that suffering. Oh, how Thompson hurt.
“This brought the South Carolinian to terms,” the Shorthand history continued. “He made an open apology to the reporters, which had the effect of restoring peace.”
Telegram from Thompson to Greg Gianforte: Don’t mess with the press.
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