Book Review: Politician Extraordinaire

Politician Extraordinaire: The Tempestuous Life and Times of Martin L. Davey. By Frank P. Vazzano. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2008. xiv, 322 pp. Cloth, $45.00, ISBN 978-0-87338-920-4.)

Nearly all Ohioans are at least somewhat familiar with the Davey Tree Expert Company and its ubiquitous green trucks.  But few are aware that Martin L. Davey, the son of the company’s founder, served in a number of political offices, most notably the Ohio governorship from 1935 to 1939.  Seeking to rectify this gap in the collective knowledge, historian Frank P. Vazzano, who calls Davey “the most interesting man I’ve never met,” has produced a masterfully-written biography of the state’s fifty-third governor.   He draws upon a voluminous collection of primary sources, including contemporary news accounts, Davey Company records, and government documents from the local, state, and national levels to paint a colorful portrait of a controversial man.  Unfortunately, as well-written and thoroughly-researched as this book is, readers may disagree that Martin L. Davey was in any way extraordinary.  On the contrary, what emerges from the pages is a stereotypical portrait of a cynical politician: an ambitious job-seeker climbing the political ladder – vain, hypocritical, self-aggrandizing, and not above employing “mean” campaign tactics, to use the author’s term.

The Martin L. Davey portrayed in the early chapters of Vazzano’s book is actually quite admirable.  Born in 1884 in Kent, Ohio, Davey grew up in poverty, as his father, John, “far more a dreamer than a realist” (4), struggled to transform the craft of tree surgery into a respectable profession and profitable business.  The family moved from house to house, and Davey suffered the taunts of schoolmates who considered the elder Davey little more than an eccentric.  This hard upbringing fostered in Davey a spirit of independence and self-reliance.  He worked to help the family survive, most notably by going door-to-door selling his father’s book, The Tree Doctor.  During his late teens Davey sold typewriters in Cleveland, and Vazzano makes it clear that the skills at salesmanship and “sizing up” prospective customers which he honed at this time would later serve him effectively during his campaigns for public office.  Forced to drop out of Oberlin College to help manage the fast-growing Davey Company, Martin Davey also developed a fascination with politics; his admiration for William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson drew him to the Democratic Party.

Davey’s first political victory came in 1913 when, at age 29, he won election as mayor of Kent.  One questions whether Davey was really a “Boy Wonder,” as Vazzano dubs him.  The improvements he oversaw, such as the construction of a modern sewage plant, were typical of dozens of Ohio cities during the Progressive Era, and Davey actually fulfilled few of his promises and quickly tired of the low-paying, mundane position.  After an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1914, Davey won election to the House of Representatives in 1918.  His term was distinguished by his Red-baiting and support for the excesses of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during the post-war crackdown on radicals.  Davey joined the fray by introducing a draconian anti-leftist sedition bill which went nowhere in Congress.  He also supported immigration restrictions, despite being the son of an immigrant himself.  In his unsuccessful reelection bid in 1920, Davey ran newspaper ads boasting that he was “virile” and “100% American,” even though he had dodged the World War I draft.

Davey again won election to the House in 1922, serving Ohio’s Fourteenth Congressional District for six more years.  Despite his conviction that “the gutter appeal of anti-Catholicism” was “wicked and detestable” (70), Davey balked at the opportunity to denounce Ohio’s powerful Ku Klux Klan during his 1924 reelection bid because, as Vazzano tells it, “doing so might jeopardize his chances for reelection” (125).  Davey did little of substance during his second tenure in the House, save for a widely-ridiculed government reorganization bill he introduced in 1925.  What most distinguished Martin Davey’s congressional career was his appalling attendance record, as his continued oversight of the Davey Tree Expert Company necessitated constant travel between Washington and Kent.  “In seven years,” Vazzano notes, Davey “had missed more than five hundred roll calls out of a thousand” (272).  Little wonder, then, that Davey remained “better known as a tree man than as a congressman” (128).  He left Congress in 1929 after an unsuccessful bid for Ohio’s governorship, during which he once again resisted pleas from party officials to denounce the KKK.

After struggling to keep the family business financially viable during the early years of the Great Depression, Martin Davey won the governorship in 1934 and 1936, victories made possible in large part by the coattails of Franklin Roosevelt, a man whose domestic policies he detested.  What ensued were four brutish years marked by Davey’s juvenile temper, vindictiveness, and general lack of tact.  He carried on a public feud with New Deal officials over the disbursement of relief funds, and squabbled with just about everyone else on a regular basis.  Davey’s clumsy mishandling of the 1937 Little Steel Strike alienated organized labor, one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies.  He fought off charges – well founded charges – of graft and corruption in his administration, even as he exacted revenge on old political foes and became abusive of subordinates.  Vazzano observes that “nothing energized Martin more than the prospect of a mean, drag-out fight” (240), and therein lays the problem: Davey was a volatile politician, but never a statesman.  Fittingly, his own party rejected him in the 1938 primary.  Nominated again in 1940, Davey suffered an overwhelming defeat to incumbent governor John W. Bricker.  He spent the remaining six years of his life overseeing the Davey Company and sending mean-spirited letters to Bricker.

To his credit Vazzano, despite his fascination with Davey, presents a very balanced account of his life, leveling criticism when warranted.  The book is meticulously researched, and Vazzano’s writing is nothing short of first-rate.  He does a superb job of placing Davey’s political experiences in perspective with thorough explanations and analyses of state and national politics in the 1920s and 1930s.  On a negative note, Vazzano, who confesses to being an “unabashed storyteller,” occasionally includes too much superfluous detail, such as his three-page-long account of the 1924 Democratic Convention.  There are other examples of this needless wordiness throughout the narrative; this book could have been condensed a great deal and still have been every bit as effective, perhaps more so.  Another minor criticism concerns Vazzano’s secondary sources, which are terribly dated, no doubt the products of his original research conducted over four decades ago.  These include a forty-plus-year-old biography of J. Edgar Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 autobiography, and even a 1970 survey-level history textbook.  There are newer, much better sources available, and it would have taken minimal effort to do some updating.

In the end, although Vazzano is right to call Davey a “very, very interesting man”(x), it is questionable just how significant a political figure he really was.  Although he lived through some of the most critical and tumultuous times in American history, Davey did very little to shape them; Ohio and the nation at large were little affected by Martin L. Davey.  Where he did leave his mark, it was a negative, even ugly one.  Vazzano’s narrative provides very little to like about Davey, but plenty to dislike.  Still, this is a very important book, as it fills a void in the history of Ohio politics, and is the only book-length scholarly study of Martin L. Davey.  It is a welcome addition to the literature on Ohio politics in the twentieth century.

Arthur E. DeMatteo
Glenville State College