Kissing Babies

The name Kittens couldn't be taken seriously. It had a Pavlovian tendency to dredge up memories from childhood, of the kitten that got caught up in the tree and had to be carried down by the volunteer fireman or the kitten that pawed the spokes of the Concord stagecoaches that brattled down main street. At twenty-one, he lopped off the surname that had plagued so many generations of his family and let himself be known as Charles Katz, a name, in his opinion, more befitting of a public official.

Katz was the governor of a little known state, a lesser known national figure, obscure even to those who had winched him up into office, for the reason that the preceding governor had embezzled ones of thousands from the state and was said to have fled with his mistress to somewhere in Latin America. Katz was an orator with a droll voice and affinity for archaic and rarely spoken words like gramercy and wellaway. He was as erudite and sagacious as he was dull and frequently ignored by his subordinates. One reporter commented he displayed the charisma of "a paper bag". Another journalist mused he made "Calvin Coolidge look like Will Rogers". He campaigned on the strength of his record, which in an extract from a short blurb published in the Boston Globe was "modest and without any great shakes". Polls had him pinched between Oklahoma Governor William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray and Maryland Governor Albert C. Richie. He was described by his colleagues as a blunt man. A bluntness, they said, that was often mistaken for haughtiness or curmudgeonry. An old friend said of Katz, "Despite oratory difficulties that have troubled him since grade school, he is a man of deep convictions, who says what he believes and believes what he says."

On Tuesday 16 February 1932, in the early evening, Charles Katz prepared to deliver a speech to a union of meat packers – a modest crowd - along the Massachusetts Bay, while the barge behind him waited impatiently for a shipment of Black Angus steaks to be ferried to Atlantic City no later than nine. Despite a clear purple-blue sky, the evening was barbed with a gelid wind, carving across the water, with fangs enough to nip through the thickest of wool jackets. Charles Katz stood at the lectern, propped up on a dais of meat crates. The wind cajoled his distinguished plot of graying hair to one side. He was a tall, robust man, with a wide face and tuberous, ill-matching features. Ascribed to the unpleasant weather, a speech of twenty-six minutes was pared down to just over eighteen, with the better half of his words being carried off in the surly wind.

The conclusion of his speech was met with modest applause. He shook hands with packers and treaters and some lightermen. Mistaking him for another man entirely, the wife of a cleaver asked him to hold her baby while she chased down a cloth diaper that was sailing ominously toward the barge. Without time to respond, Katz took hold of the baby, who was swaddled in two thick wool blankets. He supported it as if holding something large and awkwardly shaped. If there were two things he didn't care for they were Communism and small children. He had nothing in common with children. He was a serious man with serious ideas and children were bearers of the just the opposite. A small bubble of saliva ballooned between the baby's rouged cheeks. It popped and the tyke giggled. Katz was repulsed.

"Mr. Katz." A young photojournalist wearing a dingy, wide-brimmed porkpie on a tilt, one of the two media outlets present, snapped a picture before he could hand the baby off to the cleaver's wife, who was hurrying back when she realized he was somebody else entirely. The flash bulb burst like a pixie's sneeze or small supernova contained within the orb of glass. The photographer was gone and the cleaver's wife was trying desperately to pry loose the baby from his arms, as Katz surveyed the pier to see where the young man had run off to.

His campaign manager, Boyd Rollins, said, after Katz had told him the story, "Ah, it's no big deal. Maybe some poor sap will think it's cute and vote for you." Boyd laughed.

As it so happened, there were many "poor saps". The front page of the Boston Herald the next morning printed the photograph of Katz and the baby. The caption read "Governor Charles Katz on a routine campaign stop along the Massachusetts Bay entertains a small child". The story spread like influenza, picked up by the Globe, the Times, the Gazette, the Journal, the Inquirer, the Tribune, the Dispatch, the Chronicle, the Sentinel, the Sun, the Ledger, the Register, the Star, the Observer, and the Saturday Evening Post. He was called a "crusader for family values", "a big voice for the smallest people", "an advocate for the Sunday morning family", "a big hearted man in a disheartened nation". Boyd Rollins popped open the priciest bottle of champagne he could find and started jumping on the bed. They stayed in a suite with the flurry of money coming in from new donors. Katz thumbed through a Bertrand Russell book in the living room, breaking intermittently to jot down notes or ideas. "I still think you'd like Dashiell Hammett better," Rollins called from the bedroom, and hopped off the bed to find a light for his cigar.

When Huey Long was asked for his thoughts on Charles Katz, he responded, "I don't have much of an opinion, seeing that I don't have a gah-don Kentucky's clue who Charles Katz is."

The polls the next week showed that Katz had moved up ahead of Missouri Senator James Reed. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst, fearing a threat to his candidate, House Speaker John Nance Garner, sought to poleax Katz down with the might of the pen. Hearst hired three of the finest private eyes, but Katz's only vice seemed to be a love for a little bit of marzipan in the evenings.

In the days following, one opponent was so bold as to kiss a baby on its forehead, another cradled two in his arms at once. There was an unsubstantiated rumor (devoid of photographical evidence) that a baby was laid out on Roosevelt's lap during a small stump speech in Nassau County. Next to Katz's spontaneity, these acts seemed contrived and the public saw through their political posturing. Katz became something of a national icon to women, an emblem of virility and paternal responsibility. He was polling in the double digits among the female population. Single women and married women alike threw themselves at him at every campaign destination, passing their names and addresses through handshakes or slipping them into his pockets when he was near enough. Katz would deflect the women onto Boyd, who was the self-proclaimed happiest man on earth. Crowds were four times larger than they had ever been. People (mostly women) brayed in wild, frantic voices. One young woman in Charleston, South Carolina fainted, but it was later discovered she had a mild form of epilepsy. Rollins sent flowers on behalf of Katz, one thing led to another, and the two of them struck up a relationship – Rollins and the girl that is. She traveled up the coast with the campaign until Philadelphia, when she and the fundraising accountant were caught in the act, and Rollins sent both of them packing.

Katz was still a good deal behind Al Smith and John Nance Garner when a reporter asked the Roosevelt camp whether they thought Katz could pass Smith and Garner to become his chief adversary. The Roosevelt press secretary laughed, remarking, "Now that would be the surprise of the century, wouldn't it?"

Upon moving ahead of Ohio Governor George White, Hearst declared enough is enough and ran a full page article in the New York Daily Mirror. The legendary photograph was printed below with the headline reading "Charles Katz's Bastard Child with Married Woman". It went on to insinuate sexual misconduct and accuse Katz of holding the baby in a way that could cause damage to its neck. Rollins countered by issuing a statement in the New York Daily News that the article in the Daily Mirror was "fictitious, libelous, and containing not even a shade of truth". He said, very persuasively one might add, that it "engendered a decline of decent politics". The addendum to the Hearst article regarding the safety of the baby struck a susceptible nerve in people following the Lindbergh kidnapping. For the first time in weeks, Katz watched his poll numbers dip. His audience in Norfolk, Virginia was replete with skeptics and hecklers, and Katz was driven off the stage midway through his speech. A similar thing happened in Raleigh, North Carolina. In Atlanta, Georgia, Rollins hired an actress and small child to stand below the podium where Katz could greet them afterward, cradle the child on stage and, time permitting, feed the child its bottle. "No", Katz said. "What do you mean Ôno'? This is the only way we can get back on track," Rollins said. "I'm not running a campaign of gimmickry and spectacle." Katz paced across the room mumbling the lines of his speech to himself. "How very noble of you," Rollins said, and tramped out the room. Katz delivered his speech to the Atlanta crowd. He emphasized repealing the national ban on prohibition and creating an effective economic incentive plan. He wasn't heckled or booed. The crowd looked on in a guarded silence. He saw the pretty young woman in the front bouncing the child in her arms, its mouth drawn back in a toothless smile. At the end of the speech, to sparse applause, he walked off the stage. Boyd looked on indignantly.

It was the beginning of the end for Rollins and Katz. The purchase of a one dollar egg kindled an argument that led Katz to accuse Rollins of playing loose with their money. The scuffle over eggs escalated to an argument over the fancy new clothes Rollins had purchased for himself and the five-star hotels they were staying in. Katz was perfectly content in more humble surroundings, as long as he had a writing desk to work on. A week after the speech in Atlanta, Rollins defected, accepting a position as the number three in command for the Al Smith campaign, where they casually asked him questions about Katz's personal life, and Rollins, naively and unknowingly, answered them with long, detailed anecdotes.

Junior campaign secretary (and second cousin to Katz) Waldo Van Brunson, a quiet, frail, vastly under qualified boy of twenty-four, was promoted to the job of campaign manager. It was a step up from his previous position which entailed mostly loading luggage into cars and staying out of the way. For his first act as campaign manager, he scheduled Katz to be in two places at once.

An anonymous tip brought into question Katz's sexual orientation. In truth, he was not a homosexual, but rather a man so devoted to public service chasing skirts seemed trivial to him. He was too embarrassed to denounce the accusation publicly, as if having to defend himself incriminated him further. In Nashville, Katz found himself the butt of vicious aspersions that were welcomed by the audience with peals of laughter and applause. Katz surrendered the podium, his face prickled red. At his next stop in St. Louis, he didn't give much a speech; his time on stage was spent dissuading rumors of a German heritage, and once he seemed to get the point across, he was pressed to deny Jewish origins. The Washington Times dug up birth records and exposed his true last name. An old classmate of Katz divulged his high school nickname - "Kitty-Kitty".

Waldo became increasingly worried about Katz. Never had he heard him utter a single contemptuous word against the United States until dinner after the Kansas City event, when he called it an "arrogant country of philistines". Later that evening, he picked up a portly, swine-faced woman at the hotel bar - probably to prove something to himself. Five rounds of cocktails - and Katz wasn't much of a drinker - had them barreling around the bedroom like two old lovers. When Waldo found him the next morning, he was a wreck, moping around and grumbling incoherently.

Katz poll numbers continued to tumble with each subsequent tour stop and each article published by a Hearst-owned newspaper. (However, it looked as though Hearst was now beginning to aim the bulk of his flak toward Al Smith.) He passed through Chicago and Detroit and Columbus and Rochester and Albany and wound up where he had started, outside of Boston, along the Massachusetts Bay.

Waldo noted a strange introversion and aloofness in Katz on the day of his big speech in Massachusetts. Katz was striding back and forth across his hotel room all morning. Waldo left the hotel around noon. When he returned several hours later, he found Katz pacing in the same line and cadence. He turned away dinner with the gentle wave of his palm, in the same manner he had turned away breakfast and lunch earlier in the day.

A blood-red scrim swept across the edge of the cedar stage. The ballroom housed about three hundred people. A little over one hundred turned up. Katz waited for the rasping of chairs and petty conversation to die down. He took the stage to a modest reception. Staring directly at his audience, he cleared his throat and leveled his shoulders. He had no speech prepared and delivered his message ad hoc. His voice filled like a deep sail as he sheared though a sea of uninhibited veracity, looking back on politics as something murky and vague on a remote horizon. He announced the end of his candidature, but that seemed an irrelevant breach of subject. His words washed over the audience like a rogue wave. He spoke of a world steeped in fear, a world carved up into so many subdivisions each person was on an island all their own. He spoke of a gallant Salt March and a gangly Indian fellow with brilliant ideas and a German demagogue with dangerous ones. He talked of unfathomable technologies that would insist on greater responsibility and accountability from all people, and warned of a new age in politics steered by the media, by news bent through a commercial prism. The close of his oration was met with an applause as grand as he had ever heard. A prominent actor that witnessed The Speech first-hand as a young man described it some years later, in his memoirs, as a "prophetic episode that I still get chills thinking back on". An unauthorized biography of Katz, poorly sold and quickly forgotten, described its effect on the audience this way: "It was a moment they would carry with them, even if the words slipped away, the sensation would remain intact. It was a sensation that transcended the realm of politics, uncurbed by topicality, and that at the end of their lives they might have looked back on as a climax or turning point."

In the years following the election, ambitious politicians tried to manipulate parts of The Speech for political gain, pruning and garbling his words, transmuting it into their own vernacular, and parceling it out to every corner of the country, watching it slowly dissolve like a pinch of salt in the American ideologic melting pot. Though any faithful transcription of The Speech has long since disappeared from public record, historians, through interviews and examinations of private archives, have been able to piece together a general outline of the seventeen minute discourse - with the exception of minutes fourteen through sixteen, which still to this day remain a mystery. When asked directly about this missing portion of the speech, witnesses attributed various circumstances – a bathroom break, an untied shoelace, old age – to lapses in memory, a faint hint of mockery on their faces. As a result, it is impossible to appraise the significance of this omitted section. However, it should be noted, the strange placement of known Speech attendees though the lineage of modern history: hiding Jews in Germany, steering a fishing boat at Dunkirk, synthesizing chemicals next to Jonas Salk in Pittsburgh, sharing a cell with Martin Luther King in Montgomery. Some historians theorize about esoteric societies safeguarding untouched copies of The Speech, convening in dusky cellars, hallowing Katz as a contemporary oracle or saint.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the nomination after a long-drawn-out convention. Votes were sown all around. Even Will Rogers lassoed a handful of delegates. Katz opted not to run for reelection in his home state. His position was taken over by a young lawyer with a pleasant brow and a tongue just as slick as his oily black hair, who everyone in the state knew and loved and often nudged toward a run for the White House. At the end of his gubernatorial career, Katz disappeared. No one knew where he went or what had happened to him. He had only a small circle of acquaintances: those that might have known where he'd gone wouldn't tell, those that didn't know didn't care, and those that didn't know and cared couldn't find him. There are rumors of Katz marrying, settling down with a nice woman that liked hearing what he had to say, and together churning out a couple of straight-laced kids of their own - but without substantive proof it is no more than a vain attempt to give closure to this missing interval in history. Like The Speech, it is an inscrutable puzzle. And in the end, all historians have to go on are the facts.

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