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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 321

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This is the grave of Earl Butz.

Born in Albion, Indiana in 1909, Butz grew up working on his parents’ dairy farm. Unlike many young farm boys, Butz kept on through school, showed a lot of talent, and ended up at Purdue University. He got a BS in Agriculture in 1932 and then a Ph.D. in agricultural economics in 1937. He then taught at Purdue and headed their ag economics department. He became a rising star in the world of agriculture and became the vice president of the American Agricultural Economics Association in 1948. In 1954, Eisenhower named him Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, as well as the head of the U.S. delegation to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. In 1957, he left the government to become dean of the agriculture college at Purdue. He remained in university administration for over a decade, despite a failed run for the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana in 1968.

In 1971, still at Purdue, Richard Nixon tapped Butz to replace Clifford Hardin as Secretary of Agriculture. He remained at that position until 1976 and was one of the most important people in that position in its history. He barely was confirmed, only 51-44, which was rare for those days, because he was such a known corporate hack. The main thing he did was transform the New Deal farm subsidy programs. When Henry Wallace and others designed them, they, to be simplistic about it, paid people not to overproduce. For Butz, this was the great evil: SOCIALISM! Butz transformed the American farm subsidy system, switching to a price guarantee no matter how much was produced. For the corn producers that dominated the Midwest, this incentivized maximum production since the government would always provide a permanent bailout. In fact, food prices skyrocketed shortly after he took office, when he engineered a huge shipment of corn to the Soviet Union when that nation faced a famine. That might have been good foreign policy, but for Butz and Nixon, it also intentionally served as a way to peel off farmers from potentially voting for George McGovern.

Butz’s emphasis on growing as much corn as possible (he told farmers to plant “fence row to fence row”) eventually did bring the prices down, but also did a great deal to create the modern domination of corn over our society, with corn syrup and corn products everywhere in our food and other industrial systems. Now the government and industry would find new ways to use all that corn, whether sticking in everything as a sweetener or lobbying to burn it as ethanol. Butz was the ultimate friend of agribusiness and was hated by liberals and those who still hung on to the New Deal agricultural vision. This all had a long-term negative side as well. With Butz’s encouragement, farmers invested in more land, bigger machinery, and an incredible amount of fertilizer. But while government corn investments might have propped up the prices, the overall commodity price declines of the 1980s meant that a whole lot of farmers now had a ton of debt they could not even service. This led to the farm crisis that helped define that decade and then the greater centralization of farm land under the control of a few corporations, which has continued today.

Butz had another problem though. He was a stone racist and basically a jerk of a human being. When environmentalists wanted to stop the use of many pesticides and herbicides such as DDT, Butz responded, “Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve.” Ah, that normal classic honest response from corporate-bought Republicans. And then when people did complain about high farm prices, Butz was less than sympathetic. For instance, in a speech in Urbana, Illinois in 1973, he blamed housewives complaining about high food costs, talking about their “low level of economic intelligence.”

In 1974, responding to Pope Paul VI’s call to oppose population control, Butz did so in a fake Italian accent that mocked the Pope’s English, which led to the Vatican calling for an official policy from the Ford administration, greatly angering the new president. But then in 1976, Butz was on a flight to the Republican National Convention. He was flying with Pat Boone, Sonny Bono, and John Dean (what a party!). He then said the following:

Butz started by telling a dirty joke involving intercourse between a dog and a skunk. When the conversation turned to politics, Boone, a right-wing Republican, asked Butz why the party of Lincoln was not able to attract more blacks. The Secretary responded with a line so obscene and insulting to blacks that it forced him out of the Cabinet last week and jolted the whole Ford campaign. Butz said: “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit.”

Well, I guess you can see why Nixon liked him so much.

Dean was offended and wrote about it, without naming Butz. But Time figured it out. It wasn’t hard. Butz was known for his open racism and Dean didn’t really try to hide that it was a Cabinet official. Butz was finished and was forced to resign.

He returned to Purdue as an emeritus dean. But then he got busted for tax evasion. He pleaded guilty and in returned got a 5 year sentence that was reduced to all but 30 days, plus of course the fines. Of course, none of this, the racism or the tax evasion, hurt him at all in Republican circles. Butz became an officer on many corporate boards, a lobbyist for agricultural interests, and all the rest of the expected senior power player world. He died in 2008 at the age of 98.

Earl Butz is buried next to his wife of 58 years in Tippecanoe Memory Gardens, West Lafayette, Indiana.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am very grateful for making this series happen. I will indeed be going to Baltimore later this month thanks to all of you. If you are interested in seeing this series visit more exciting Agriculture secretaries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Orville Freeman is in Minneapolis and Ezra Taft Benson is in Whitney, Idaho. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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