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Commentary: News conjures ghost of Bill Langer

The ghost of Wild Bill Langer has stirred for a second time in a fortnight, once in connection with the Board of Higher Education and the second with the U.S. Senate election in Alabama.

The first recalls a time in Langer's governorship when he caused the firing of faculty at the agricultural college, now NDSU, bringing censure and inciting a petition campaign that created the independent board. The current occupant of the governor's office has announced that a task force will re-evaluate how the state's public colleges and universities are governed.

The second evokes the controversy that followed Wild Bill's election to the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Constitution makes the Senate the judge of its own membership. Langer's fitness was challenged. This is of interest, bearing as it does on Roy Moore's qualification to be a senator from Alabama.

The higher education episode occurred in 1937, the Senate challenge on 1941.

Langer was elected in 1940, first surviving a bitter three-way primary election contest, where he won 38 percent of the vote. Langer had a lot of political enemies including some elected officials, and they challenged his suitability almost immediately after the votes were counted.

Their case included charges related to his conviction for conspiracy during his first governorship in 1935. The specific crime was soliciting subscriptions to his political newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader, from federal employees. Langer was convicted and sentenced, though never jailed. After much legal wrangling, he was cleared, though not definitively enough to satisfy his enemies. They presented other charges, as well, 11 in all, some involving handling of private legal cases. One questioned his handling of bond sales by the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

Senators were cautious, seating Langer conditionally and undertaking a thorough investigation. After more than a year, the Committee on Privileges and Elections recommended that Langer be barred from service, but in the end the Senate itself voted to seat him.

Langer's case is one of 17 efforts to unseat elected members that have been undertaken since the Civil War. None has been successful, although some have resigned in the face of charges that they'd abused their Senate position. In seating Langer, senators noted his offenses had occurred before voters elected him. Both of these circumstances pertain in the Alabama case now attracting so much attention. If candidate Roy Moore is elected, precedent suggests he will serve.

History has yet to pass definitive judgment on the Langer case, since no impartial analysis has been undertaken. Agnes Geelan reported the episode in her admiring biography of Langer, "The Dakota Maverick" published in 1975. In 2004, Robert Vogel, a former prosecuting attorney who ran Congress and served on the state Supreme Court justice, published a detailed examination of Langer's legal troubles. His point of view is reflected in the book's title, "Unequal Contest:

Bill Langer and His Political Enemies."

Vogel developed his loyalty to Langer at close quarters. His father, Frank Vogel, was Langer's closest political advisor. He served as tax commissioner, highway commissioner and president of the Bank of North Dakota during Langer's governorships. He was indicted as a co-conspirator with Langer; his case paralleled Langer's, ending in an acquittal on appeal. In the 1980s, a third Vogel became prominent in the state's politics. Sarah Vogel, daughter of Robert, an activist attorney, was elected state agriculture commissioner and served from 1989 until 1997. The ag commissioner is a member of the board that oversees the state-owned bank once managed by her grandfather.

Langer's Senate career lasted through three re-election campaigns, each bringing him a larger percentage of votes. He was seriously ill during his last campaign, in 1958, and didn't make a single appearance in the state. He died on Nov. 8, 1959, having served 54 days short of 19 years.

As a senator, Langer earned a reputation as an isolationist by opposing Roosevelt's lend-lease program, the Marshall Plan and the U.N. charter. He introduced hundreds — if not thousands — of private bills aimed to help individuals, many of them immigrants. These were often accompanied with political grandstanding. One of his most notorious stunts involved a campaign to win diplomatic positions for his constituents. Thomas Whelan, a potato farmer from St. Thomas, became ambassador to Nicaragua, serving during the Somoza dictatorship.

Mike Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. His column is published each Tuesday.

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