Wednesday is the anniversary of the birth of Hoosier author Booth Tarkington, who was born in Indianapolis on July 29, 1869. Although best known as a writer and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tarkington had a brief, but eventful, career as an Indiana legislator.
Marion County voters faced a dizzying array of choices in the March 1902 Republican primary. Nineteen GOP candidates were vying for the seven spots available to the county in the Indiana House of Representatives. When the dust settled the leading vote getter, polling 10,733 tallies,was a rookie in the fiercely competitive world of Hoosier politics--Tarkington.
The stunning success enjoyed at the polls by this political neophyte was explained rather succinctly by one Washington Township farmer: “We voted for him [Tarkington] as a sort of experiment. The paper said he’s a play writer and some kind of an actor, and we just want to see what sort of a gosh derned fool he’ll make of himself in the Legislature.”
Tarkington’s lackluster campaign provided plenty of opportunities for the farmer’s amusement. “I would as soon be sent to jail as to have to make a speech,” said Tarkington, who buttressed his point by delivering only a few talks (lasting mere minutes in length) during his election effort.
Safely ensconced in the Indiana General Assembly following his triumph over his Democratic opponent, Tarkington won the respect of his fellow legislators. The thirty-three-year-old writer and freshman lawmaker took on his party’s chief elected state official, Governor Winfield T. Durbin, in a bitter battle involving the governor’s attempt to oust the Jeffersonville Reformatory board. Tarkington led the opposition to the so-called Ripper Bill and succeeded in defeating Durbin’s move to replace the old board with his hand-picked cronies.
Having proved himself to be always good for a laugh during the campaign, Tarkington at first appeared to follow the same route in the Indiana General Assembly. Early in the session, fellow Republican Charles Warren Fairbanks asked Tarkington to place his name in nomination for the U.S. Senate. Overwhelmed by such an honor falling upon a freshman legislator, a puzzled Tarkington asked a friend why Fairbanks had selected him. “He’s so sure of being elected,” the friend responded, “he wants to show everybody that nothing on earth can stop him.” After finishing his nominating speech, Tarkington caught a glimpse of his father in the packed galleries. “His face was suffused and I had the unfilial impression that he was trying not to laugh contagiously,” Tarkington remembered.
The chuckles at his expense stopped, however, when Tarkington engaged in a bitter fight over legislation backed by Governor Durbin that would have removed the board at the Jeffersonville Reformatory, which somehow had displeased Indiana’s chief executive. This naked grab for power came after a campaign that saw the GOP pledging to keep politics out of running state institutions. At first, Tarkington led a lonely fight to stop what became known as the Ripper Bill, which had already made its way successfully through the state senate. But the supposedly inexperienced legislator rallied others to his cause, including a good portion of the House’s Marion County delegation.
Tarkington’s principled stand worked; the governor’s forces capitulated in a “secret” meeting held on January 27, 1903, at Indianapolis’s English Hotel. In order to avoid what would be a humiliating defeat, Durbin had agreed to a compromise (actually total subjugation on his part) whereby the old bill was shelved for legislation providing that the reformatory’s superintendent and board could only be removed by the governor following the filing of written charges and a hearing. The insurgents, as Tarkington proclaimed the bill’s opponents, “dictated the terms of surrender, which (it was tactily agreed) should be called, for political measures and out of courtesy, ‘a compromise.’”
Although there had been calls for him to run for mayor of Indianapolis, Tarkington had decided to run for the Indiana Senate, or, if that failed, to return to the Indiana General Assembly as a state representative. But after returning from his French Lick Springs vacation, Tarkington was struck by typhoid fever. The illness cut short the writer’s promising life in politics, but his stint in the state legislature did provide Tarkington with enough inside material to produce numerous short stories on politics’ inner workings, which were collected in the publication In the Arena: Stories of Political Life (1905).