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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 90

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This is the grave of Charles McNary.

Born on a farm north of Salem, Oregon in 1874, Charles McNary grew up relatively poor after his father died when he was 9, but he moved up quickly in Oregon society due to an older brother who had gained some prosperity, plus getting to know Herbert Hoover, the only president to have spent significant time in Oregon. McNary took some courses as Willamette University and then went to Stanford in 1896, making him a relatively old student for the time. He only stayed there for a year before returning home and deciding to make a career in the law. He passed the bar in 1898 and along with his brothers, became part of the leading law firm in the state’s capital. He taught law at Willamette and then became dean.

McNary entered Oregon politics in the 1890s, becoming Marion County’s deputy recorder from 1892-96. He rose after returning to Oregon, becoming a relative Progressive who stayed within the Republican Party. He supported most of Oregon’s Progressive Era reforms around political campaigns and issues, including the initiative, referendum, recall, and direct election of senators. For this and being a loyal Republican in a time of reform, he was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1913, at the age of 38. But this was an elected office and he lost his campaign in 1914. He became chairman of the state Republican Party. After the death of Harry Lane, McNary was selected to fill his term in the Senate in 1917. He remained there until his death in 1944.

In the Senate, McNary quickly proved his mettle and became a protege of Henry Cabot Lodge. This gained him favorable committee assignments and soon he became arguably the most powerful politician in Oregon history (a low bar at this time, to be sure). Warren Harding asked him to take over as Secretary of the Interior after the Albert Fall scandal at Teapot Dome, but not being an idiot, McNary refused. He was selected as Minority Leader in 1933, where he actually supported a good bit of the New Deal and especially Roosevelt’s preparations for World War II. He also became a major proponent of government investment in hydroelectric dams, which would eventually help develop eastern Oregon by damming the Columbia River. McNary Dam on the Columbia is named for him. His name was on the Clarke-McNary Act, one of the most important bills in the history of forestry, which provided federal aid for fire protection, among many other things. He also pushed through the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, which while vetoed by the vile Calvin Coolidge, was also an important precedent for the Agricultural Adjustment Act by wanting to set price floors for farm products.

McNary became the Republican candidate for Vice-President in 1940, despite having little in common with presidential nominee Wendell Willkie. Of course, FDR wiped the floor with them. He remained in the Senate but was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1943 and died the next year. With Willkie dying shortly after, this is the only time in U.S. history that both members of a party ticket died during the period in which they would have served.

Charles McNary is buried in Belcrest Memorial Park, Salem, Oregon.

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