Alexander Scott Bullitt (1877 - 1932)

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About Alexander Scott Bullitt

Alexander Scott Bullitt

Although Scott Bullitt never achieved his dream of being elected to political office in Washington State, he did manage to revitalize a moribund Democratic Party and inspire a new generation of young activists-- including Warren G. Magnuson. A fatalist could find some meaning in the fact Bullitt died at a young age in 1932, just before the Democratic Party landslide. His survivors went on to form one of the great media empires of Puget Sound and his widow became the one of the most powerful women in Washington State.

Alexander Scott Bullitt was born Jan. 23, 1877 in Louisville, Ky. Some sources have his year of birth as 1878 or 1879. His lineage was filled with movers and shakers dating back to colonial times, and the Bullitts were prominent lawyers and Democrats in Kentucky. His father had been captured by Union forces during the Civil War when he was fighting with Morgan's Raiders. Scott attended Princeton when Woodrow Wilson was there. He was active in football and boxing. Later he went to law school at the University of Virginia.

Upon his return home, reform-minded Gov. Beckham appointed Bullitt to the office of Sheriff of Jefferson County. According to O. Casey Corr, "As sheriff, Bullitt crusaded against gamblers, raided poolrooms, and stopped bookmaking at the racetracks. That angered much of the establishment but made Bullitt a hero to the Louisville Courier-Journal. His success propelled him into the office of county attorney in 1910."

Bullitt had managed to stay single up to the age of 40, being married only to his career. But during a trip to Seattle while visiting his brother in 1917 he met Dorothy Stimson. Dorothy's father, C.D. Stimson, was one of Puget Sound's wealthiest and most influential lumbermen. They married after a whirlwind romance and moved to Louisville.

Scott enlisted in the Army during the Great War and was stationed in Camp Zachary Taylor, in the Louisville area. After the Armistice, he was stationed in Washington, D.C., but eventually returned to Seattle by the early 1920s. The Stimsons lived in the exclusive Highlands area. C.D., who quickly bonded with his son-in-law and genuinely enjoyed his company, bought the mansion next door ("Greenway") and presented it as a gift to Scott and Dorothy in 1922.

Now the father of three children, Scott Bullitt found himself in an interesting position in the Highlands among Seattle's elite. As Delphine Haley points out in Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, An Uncommon Life, "As ardent Democrats, Scott and Dorothy were aliens in Republican territory, but, because their relatives comprised a quarter of the population, they were tolerated as political eccentrics." His Southern charm was disarming, he made friends easily, and he was a master story-teller. Where Bullitt came from, the upper class were Democrats, and he was not about to change his stripes simply because he was living in a new place.

Bullitt was shocked to discover the Democratic party had no headquarters in Washington. So he created one. In 1924 he attended the Democratic National Convention as a McAdoo delegate. He became the chief advocate for Washington State delegates condemning the Ku Klux Klan by name, but his fellow Dems lacked the will to follow. He later became a forceful opponent to the Klan-sponsored Initiative 49 in the election of 1924 which would have closed parochial schools in Washington. He also took a chance and suggested that the Prohibition laws be modified to allow the consumption of beer and lighter wines. In addition he was on record as being pro-labor.

In 1926 he entered the race for the U.S. Senate against longtime Republican incumbent Wesley Jones. As a point of trivia, Ungovernor David Burgess was also in this race under the Socialist Labor banner. Bullitt had several handicaps: he was a carpetbagger, a neophyte in Evergreen State elective politics, he was wealthy and lived in isolation from the common experience. But he was also determined and ambitious.

Prohibition became the issue. Jones had enjoyed support from the Anti-Saloon League, an organization that found Bullitt's views to be too permissive. Scott advocated the doctrine of states' rights on the issue, although he didn't promote repeal. He had reversed some his earlier anti-Prohibition stands, perhaps realizing the voters were not ready for it yet. The Seattle Star called the Jones/Bullitt contest "Dry vs. Moist." Bullitt campaigned vigorously, visiting every county and using his considerable financial resources. Jones charged that Bullitt was being financed by "brewery, distillery, and saloon interests." He asked the U.S. Senate to investigate, and just a couple weeks before the election a committee of one, U.S. Sen. McNary held a hearing where Bullitt defended himself. The results, according to Norman Clark, "had revealed only the hyperbole of state Republicans and the verbosity of Scott Bullitt. The scandal which Jones and his campaigners had hoped for never materialized; if anything, the Senator himself was exposed as more foggy and sloppy in his research than a senator should be."

On the face of it, Bullitt's defeat on Election Day (148,783 votes/46.52%) looks just like that, a defeat. In reality it was a dazzling success in re-energizing the Washington State Democratic Party. A network had been created, a new party was being formed from the ashes of the old. Bullitt's final percentage was not the low number slaughter the Dems had become accustomed to receiving. Sidenote: Jones was defeated for re-election in 1932 by Homer Bone and died a couple weeks after the election.

Not letting the momentum of 1926 lose steam, Bullitt entered the 1928 Democratic Party primary election for Governor. He studiously avoided making any comments on his chief rival, Stephen J. Chadwick, and stayed silent on the subject of Prohibition. Instead of attacking fellow Democrats, Scott campaigned across the state as if he had already won the general and spent his time and energy attacking incumbent Gov. Hartley, a conservative Republican. Instead of relying on the remnants of the traditional Democratic Party for campaign support, Bullitt had built his own version of the party. It worked. He handily defeated Chadwick and two other Democrats. Those in the Chadwick camp who dismissed Bullitt as a vain, egotistical, richboy political dilettante/adventurer had seriously underestimated him.

It was in the course of this primary campaign Bullitt was approached by a young law student interested in politics named Warren G. Magnuson. Maggie's biographer Shelby Scates points out the future U.S. Senator always considered Bullitt to be his mentor and the "ideal politician." Bullitt steered the young man to his first statewide party convention, where the issue of dry vs. wet was hotly debated. "Magnuson," wrote Scates, "may not yet have had a clear idea about affiliation, but from practice and conviction he was truly a wet." Bullitt gave the keynote address to a very positive reception.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Gov. Hartley was facing a revolt from within the ranks. Edward L. French, who gained 42% of the vote, declared he would support Bullitt in the general election. Richard Fisch gives us a nice summary of Hartley's style as Governor:

"Republican Governor Roland Hartley of Everett, elected in 1924, had made many enemies within his own organization. There was one sure rule concerning the maverick governor; if a proposal was even mildly progressive, Hartley would be against it. When he demanded that cruising reports of state timber lands be released before sales, he precipitated a civil war among members of his own party in the legislature. Others took offense at the rude and rough way in which the governor axed Henry Suzzallo, president of the University of Washington. The latter found himself dismissed without either charges or a hearing. Progressive Republicans found Hartley's budgets skimpy for the common schools and the state highway program. The governor opposed state inspection of almost anything. He thought the state had too many libraries. Child welfare was 'altrusitic twaddle.' At one time or another during his first term, Hartley quarreled with nearly every elected official in state government, and dismissed his own appointees when they dared to disagree with him. He attempted to purge legislators in 1926 and replace state officials with his own men in the Republican primaries of 1928. Short called him the worst governor in the history of the state, and even the most conservative newspapers in the state joined in the unsuccessful movement to recall him."

For the office of President the Democrats were running New York Gov. Al Smith, a "wet" and a Catholic. It was clear to all that there was no way he was going to win in Washington State. Bullitt didn't exactly embrace the standard-bearer and decided to say as little about Prohibition as possible. Scott was endorsed by several Republican leaders and newspapers that usually raked the Dems over the coals. He attacked Hartley on economic grounds and for his lack of skill in delivering social services. But Hartley was no wallflower when it came to bareknuckle campaigning. Robert Cole explains:

"Hartley employed a campaign of divisiveness and personal attack on Bullitt similar to that he had successfully employed in gaining the Republican nomination and election to office in 1924. He portrayed Bullitt as the member of the 'establishment' and himself as the outsider and defender of the people's interest. Bullitt's Republican endorsements actually helped to buttress Hartley's claims. He attacked the metropolitan lease arrangement by which Bullitt's family interests obtained long-term management rights over property owned by the University of Washington in downtown Seattle. He scored both Bullitt's short residency in the state, and the fact that he was not militantly supporting his own party's national ticket. Hartley employed a crude campaign of over-simplification and innuendo to influence the average voter."

Richard Fisch put it simply, "In a campaign of personal abuse, Hartley was in his element."

Hartley's "outsider" status, even though he was the incumbent Governor, was self-created. Norman Johnston, summarizing Hartley's role in the completion of the Legislative Building: "His cocky personal style, his limited education and his disdain for it in principle, his pungent vocabulary and the unreliability of what he said, his self-imposed isolation from his peers even before it was clear that he was unwelcome, and the cronies he included among the appointments he controlled were all bound to repel those proper bureaucrats with whom he had been cast to carry out the public's business. Thus, his every move caused them to close ranks more tightly-- with the governor locked out instead of being invited in."

When the campaign Hartley biographer Albert Gunns called "vigorous, muddy, and insignificant" came to an end, Bullitt tallied 214,334 votes (42.73%), "ordinarily an unbelievable number for a Democratic candidate in the 1920s," says Gunns. Bullitt won in a few counties: Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Kittitas and Lewis.

The remainder of Bullitt's short life was filled with victory and sadness. His beloved father-in-law, C.D. Stimson, died in August 1929. The stock market crash in October threatened to eat the family fortune. Brother-in-law and rival Thomas Stimson died in an airplane crash in 1931. But there were also good things out there. His work at party-building was starting to bear fruit.

He became active with the Municipal League, and found a job in the organization for young Warren Magnuson. "Magnuson," wrote O. Casey Corr, "would never forget his debt to Bullitt for giving him a start in politics." Maggie later went on to become probably the greatest of all the U.S. Senators from Washington State. If Bullitt accomplished nothing else, giving Magnuson an entry into politics was well worth all of his work.

Elected Washington State Democratic National Committeeman in 1929 gave Scott a bigger stage. As Seattle's Hooverville expanded and the Depression deepened, he saw a kindred spirit in Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Philosophically, he considered Roosevelt the perfect candidate-- a patrician of noble purpose, yet entirely sympathic to the needs of working people," wrote Delphine Haley. Bullitt became an early supporter of FDR and helped unite the state behind him. In Jan. 1932 he stayed at Hyde Park and strategized.

It didn't hurt to dream. He was to stand before the delegates in Chicago at the National Convention and place FDR's name in nomination. Then he would be appointed National Chairman. Perhaps he would become a cabinet official, maybe Sec. of the Navy. It looked good. But then ---

In Feb. 1932 he became ill with what the public knew as the flu. But it was cancer of the liver and gall bladder. And it was terminal. He died on April 10.

The Bullitt saga and their enormous contributions to the public life of Washington State certainly didn't stop there. Dorothy Bullitt's recovery from stunned widow with three small children to building the King Broadcasting Co. has been the subject of books. Scott's son, Stimson Bullitt, also dallied in politics and became an early opponent of the Vietnam War at a time when it was dangerous to voice such opinions. For these efforts Stimson was given the honor of being placed on Nixon's famous "Enemies List."

A. Scott Bullitt is buried in Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery in Seattle.

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