Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—William “Wild Bill” Langer
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History, William “Wild Bill” Langer was a larger-than-life character. First elected governor of North Dakota in 1932, Langer developed a reputation as a heavy-handed political operative, a man unafraid of ruffling feathers and engaging in mischief. He became embroiled in a major controversy when he required state employees to contribute funds to a weekly newspaper friendly to his gubernatorial administration. This practice was not unheard of in North Dakota at the time, but Langer ran afoul of federal law when he extended the requirement to highway department employees. Because those employees were paid through federal relief programs, Langer was charged with engaging in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States government.
Two of Langer’s strongest political opponents prosecuted the case and, not surprisingly, the governor and five co-conspirators were convicted. Owing to the felony conviction, the North Dakota Supreme Court ordered that Langer be removed from office and Lt. Governor Ole H. Olson be sworn in as his replacement. Defiant in the face of the court order, Langer refused to leave office. Instead, he barricaded himself in his office, declared martial law, and proclaimed the state of North Dakota an independent political entity. He said he would not surrender until the state supreme court met with him. In time, he reluctantly acceded to the court order and vacated the governor’s office.
Langer’s conviction was overturned on appeal. He was retried twice and even faced another trial for allegedly committing perjury in a motion he filed to ask the original trial judge to recuse himself in the future. After the litigation ended, Langer ran for governor again and, incredibly, he won reelection.
Langer ran for the United States Senate in 1938 but lost. Two years later, he campaigned for North Dakota’s other Senate seat and won with a plurality of the vote against two other candidates. When he came to Washington, D.C., however, the Senate was concerned about his felony conviction. He was seated conditionally while his fellow senators investigated. The Committee on Privileges and Elections determined that he was guilty of “moral turpitude” and concluded that Langer was unqualified to be a United States senator. The full Senate declined to follow the committee’s recommendation, however.
The so-called “Dakota Maverick” became a colorful figure in his state’s history but, as with many political leaders, his early years were inauspicious. German immigrants Frank Langer and Mary (Weber) Langer came to Minnesota before settling in Casselton, Dakota Territory, 20 miles west of Fargo. According to the 1880 census, the town sported a population of 361 souls. There, on September 30, 1886, their son William (Bill) was born in the Everest Township.
Frank Langer was a prominent businessman and farmer who owned large tracts of land, operated a general store, served as a bank director, and became the principal shareholder in North Dakota’s largest fire and hail insurance company. His activities were so extensive that the elder Langer depended on family members to assist in his operations. This required a young man like Bill to grow up quickly. At 10 years of age, Bill Langer headed into town at his father’s direction to recruit workers. At 15, Bill was hired out to a neighbor and served as the foreman on a work crew.
In addition to enjoying his family’s wealth, Bill Langer lived a charmed life. He was a gifted athlete, playing center on his high school football team. The team won its final game by a score of 86-0. Although he was only an average student, young Bill Langer demonstrated the traits of a successful politician at an early age. He participated in high school oratory for the school’s literary society. A classmate recalled that he was the best extemporaneous speaker she had ever heard. Langer also served as class president his senior year.
He decided that a career in law suited him well. In that era, an ambitious young man could attend law school without first earning a bachelor’s degree from a college or university. In 1904, at age 17, Langer enrolled in the University of North Dakota Law School. It was a two-year program. When Langer arrived on the campus, the university had 500 students, 91 of whom were enrolled in the law school. He graduated at 19 and passed the state bar examination.
North Dakota required lawyers to be at least 21 years old before they practiced law. Because he was too young, Langer resolved to use his time wisely. He traveled to New York City and studied at Columbia University, graduating in 1910 with degrees in liberal arts and law. Unlike his earlier academic record, Langer’s achievements at Columbia were impressive. He was senior class president, valedictorian, and voted “most likely to succeed.”
Langer might have remained in New York—he had an employment offer from Grover Cleveland’s law firm—but he returned to North Dakota to launch his legal career. He accepted a position in Mandan, across the river from the state capital, Bismarck, with H. R. Bitzing, state attorney in Morton County. Not long after he started his job, the Morton County commissioners appointed him an assistant state’s attorney. His political career had begun.
He became a progressive in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette, Sr., joining the Young Progressive Republican League. His platform was to argue against economic monopolies and special privileges for rich elites. When Bitzing decided to run for the state senate and announced that he would not seek reelection as Morton County’s state attorney, Langer threw his hat into the ring.
He was a natural campaigner. When the votes were tabulated, he had won the Republican primary election. Because Morton County was predominantly Republican, Langer’s primary victory normally would have been tantamount to capturing the seat. Establishment Republicans feared that the up-and-coming progressive was too liberal for their tastes, however, and they threw their support to the Democratic candidate. Facing strong headwinds, Langer tirelessly hit the road, visiting as many potential voters as possible. His remarkable ability to remember names and faces as well as his natural conviviality helped him win the election. He was 28 years old.
During the next two years, establishment Republicans in Morton County saw their worst nightmares come true. Langer received statewide attention for his progressive agenda. Prohibition was the law in North Dakota, and Langer demonstrated his zeal for enforcing the law. He also urged that taxes be increased on the Northern Pacific Railroad, and he pursued litigation against the company. A strong proponent of education, Langer enforced compulsory school-attendance laws.
The ambitious young attorney set his sights on higher office. By 1916, Langer was prepared to run for the North Dakota attorney general’s position. As he geared up for the contest, Langer sought and received an endorsement from the Nonpartisan League (NPL). Many organizations in American political life are labeled “radical,” but the NPL was one of the few that lived up to the appellation. A political movement dedicated to assisting farmers, the League espoused openly socialist ideas, from state-controlled banks, slaughterhouses, and mills to elevators. For a brief time in 1919, the NPL controlled all North Dakota’s branches of government.
With the NPL’s help, Langer won the attorney general post in 1916. Always an excitable figure—he earned his nickname “Wild Bill” for his exuberance—he came into office determined to make a name for himself. He succeeded. A lifelong teetotaler, the new attorney general promised to enforce the prohibition laws vigorously. He had once commented that the warden at a North Dakota penitentiary “tells me that at least ninety percent of the fellows out there got there through liquor. I believe special stress should be placed on enforcement of the prohibition laws.”
One order of business was to clean up the town of Minot. Langer was a hands-on elected official. He dispatched 50 detectives into the town disguised as laborers, but he also went into the field with them. He lived in the town undetected for three weeks. As a result of a series of raids, Langer’s men arrested 156 people, some of them prominent citizens. Langer later indicated that 153 of the defendants were convicted. To ensure that the first people arrested would not alert others, Langer’s detectives cut the town’s telephone lines.
Langer turned his attention to Grand Forks after Minot. Deputized as a United States marshal, he and his men raided a brewery in Grand Forks for engaging in illegal liquor sales. The brewery never reopened.
Although he had numerous supporters, Langer’s detractors howled that he was overzealous in enforcing the state’s blue laws. He was unapologetic. The attorney general was unafraid to prosecute powerful parties. He even turned on his friends, including the NPL. Langer agreed with the League’s goals for government, but he was disturbed by the group’s expansion into private businesses. In 1919, the year after he was reelected as attorney general, Langer publicly broke with the NPL.
He longed to move into the governor’s mansion. On March 23, 1920, Langer announced the start of his campaign. Downplaying his personal ambition, he insisted that he was answering a clarion call. “Influenced by the petitions of more than 20,000 citizens of the state,” he said, “I accede to their wishes, and I will become a Progressive Republican candidate for governor.”
As usual, Langer threw himself into the campaign, traveling widely—some 25,000 miles between March and June, delivering 70 speeches to 50,000 people—and drawing enthusiastic audiences. His well-honed oratorical skills and love of voters served him well. Yet he had made too many enemies among the NPL and its allies. For all his advantages as a candidate, Langer lost the primary—which, in effect, was the election for the office-holder—by approximately 5,400 votes.
He remained attorney general until the end of his term on January 3, 1921, but he was at a crossroads in his career. When his term ended, he no longer held high office. He had lost an election for the first time, and he had made bitter enemies within the still-powerful NPL. At the same time, Langer enjoyed widespread name recognition across the state, he had become a skilled campaigner and elected official, and he was a relatively young man. He understood intuitively that he might yet become governor, but he needed an image makeover.
Reflecting on his fractured association with the Nonpartisan League, Langer understood that he had to repair the damaged relationship if he hoped to reenter the political arena. Owing to his improved financial condition resulting from his burgeoning law practice, Langer provided more than $21,000 to the NPL between 1928 and 1932. The funds did much to restore amicable relations. In fact, the NPL supported Langer’s unsuccessful bid to become attorney general in 1928.
Some losing candidates retreat in humiliation and despair, but Langer was playing a long game. He recognized an opportunity to remake the NPL to become a potent faction inside the Republican Party. The organization would propel him into the governor’s mansion. Slowly and methodically, he rebuilt the organization from the precinct level up. By 1932, the NPL was, in effect, the “Langer League.” It was a shrewd, sophisticated organizational triumph. Along with support from the Farmers’ Union and the Farmers’ Holiday Association, Langer and his NPL supporters rode to victory in 1932. He was the only Republican elected governor that year as Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated the Republican incumbent president, Herbert Hoover.
As soon as he came into office, Langer announced a moratorium on all debt, although later he revised his proclamation to forbid foreclosures on real property. A month later, he exempted foreclosures by federal agencies. He also slashed state appropriations across the board, except for funding for primary and secondary education. Confronted with a crisis involving the collapsing price of wheat, Langer placed an embargo on out-of-state wheat in the fall of 1933. The price increased by five cents on the first day following the embargo. By December 5, the price had risen repeatedly. A federal district court in Minneapolis struck down the embargo, but it had served its purpose. As prices for agricultural commodities rose, Governor Langer claimed credit.
Farmers loved Langer for his policies, which had saved many a farm from foreclosure. Neighboring South Dakota had 12,000 more foreclosures than North Dakota, which was partially attributable to Langer’s policies. He had achieved his long-held ambition to become governor, and he was at the apex of his influence and popularity. During this time, however, “Wild Bill” engaged in a series of incidents that landed him in legal trouble.
It was not uncommon for a public figure to receive substantial support from friendly newspapers. At a time when President Roosevelt and his numerous backers in the state were Democrats, Langer, a Republican, found little support. To counterbalance the Democrats’ favorable news coverage, Langer created a newspaper under the NPL’s auspices. The Leader would express support for the governor and ensure that he received the laudatory coverage he deserved.
Financing the newspaper during the Great Depression was not an easy chore. Shortly after assuming office in January 1933, Langer had cleaned house in the state’s executive departments, removing long-time employees and replacing them with loyalists. This kind of spoils system was hardly unique in the annals of American state politics. What was novel was the governor’s newspaper financing plan. Because many state employees were expected to demonstrate their fidelity to the man who had provided them with jobs, Langer openly solicited funding for the newspaper by inviting employees to subscribe to The Leader for an amount equal to five percent of the employee’s annual salary. Employees need not bear the cost, however; enterprising state employees could recoup the salary loss by selling subscriptions on their own.
As a legal and ethical maneuver, the plan was questionable, but as a fundraising mechanism, it was an exceptional effort. The Leader soon eclipsed its rivals, enjoying the largest circulation of any weekly newspaper in North Dakota. At a time when few people had money, Langer’s subscription drive netted $58,751. This scheme, as ethically challenged as it appears, might have raised nothing more than eyebrows but for one unpleasant statistic. Of the amount raised, $469 came from relief employees who administered federal funds from the United States government. Their salaries were paid with federal dollars channeled through the state’s coffers. Federal law prohibited soliciting money from federal employees.
Langer insisted that his newspaper subscription plan was a legitimate fundraising tactic, but he faced stiff opposition from North Dakota Democrats. Writing to President Roosevelt to complain, a state Democrat observed that “In this state there is a federal relief fund—it is a Governor Langer relief fund, and all the employees connected with it are Republicans.” In 1934, prosecutors indicted Langer on charges of “soliciting and collecting money for political purposes from federal employees and of conspiring to obstruct the orderly operation of an act of Congress.” Although the United States Justice Department had found in a similar case from Ohio that federal money became state money after a state received it, the prosecutor, an anti-Langer man named P. W. Lanier, pursued the case.
Langer was not the sole defendant. The prosecutor also went after the state highway commissioner, employees of The Leader, and various state employees. According to the indictment, one or more defendants engaged in 28 “overt acts” that made up a criminal conspiracy. The trial commenced on May 22, 1934, in Bismarck.
Although nine defendants were on trial, all eyes were in Langer. He adopted a nonchalant attitude as he sat in court chewing on an unlighted cigar with the cellophane still attached. At one point, Langer enraged the trial judge when a juror, Les Hulet of Mandan, was walking by the defense table. During voir dire, Hulet had admitted that he knew Governor Langer, but he assured the court that he would be fair and impartial in the trial. Incredibly, he had been impaneled. Seeing his acquaintance pass by, Langer stood and draped his arm, around the man in full view of everyone in the courtroom. “Hi Les,” he said. “How are you?”
Langer eventually took the stand and admitted that he had relied on state employees to fund The Leader. When he learned that the salaries of federal employees had been solicited, he directed that the solicitations cease, and their money be returned. He said he was baffled by the indictment because he thought the matter had “been cleared up.” Concerning a charge that he had transferred funds from The Leader to his personal account, Langer explained that he had used his own money to create the newspaper and he was seeking reimbursement. The NPL owed him $20,000, he said.
The trial lasted until June 17, 1934. After three days of deliberations, the jury rendered its verdict: Guilty. The judge sentenced Langer to 18 months in jail and a $10,000 fine. The governor immediately appealed. Among other errors, he argued that the trial judge was biased against him, and he was therefore predisposed to rule against Langer.
State law mandated that anyone convicted of a felony could not serve as governor. In such a case, the lieutenant governor would serve in his stead. Ole Olson, North Dakota’s lieutenant governor in 1934, came to Bismarck to assume control. He landed in the middle of a clash of wills and ideology. The state attorney general, P. O. Sathre, ruled that when Langer filed an appeal, the legal maneuver stayed the conviction until the proceedings ran their course. Olson appealed Sathre’s ruling to the state supreme court, which disagreed with the attorney general.
Wild Bill Langer had sacrificed much to become governor, and he would not leave without putting up a fight. When Olson arrived at the governor’s office, he encountered the national guard. Langer had barricaded himself in his office and posted sentries. A large crowd had gathered outside, and Langer said the national guard was necessary to keep the peace. Olson and his allies, however, believed that Langer was using his office to retain power. It was only the intervention of Adjutant General Earle Sarles that convinced Langer to submit to the state’s authority. He left the office reluctantly.
Temporarily booted out office, Langer was in dire straits. The felony conviction had stripped him of his civil rights, which meant that he could not practice law. He had hoped to run again for governor in 1934, but the conviction precluded that option. He could run his wife, Lydia, however, and he did exactly that. Unfortunately for Langer, she lost the election to Thomas Moodie.
Langer was as wily as ever. Realizing that Moodie was a Minnesota native, Langer investigated the new governor’s background. Much to his delight, he discovered that Moodie had voted in the 1930 election in Minneapolis, which meant that he had not met North Dakota’s residency requirement for governor. When Langer presented this information to the state supreme court, the court disqualified Moodie as governor. He had served for less than a month. For the second time in six months, North Dakota’s legal system had removed a sitting governor.
Moodie’s successor, Walter Welford, expressed his gratitude to Langer for helping clear the way for Welford’s accession. In the meantime, Langer pursued his appeal federal court. Much to his relief, on May 7, 1935, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Langer’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Several trials involving the original charges followed. A conspiracy trial resulted in a hung jury. Langer received a “not guilty” verdict in a perjury trial. A second conspiracy trial found him not guilty as well.
By 1936, Langer had cleared all the legal hurdles and was ready to campaign again in the upcoming gubernatorial election. He found that Welford, who had made a full recovery from his severe case of gratitude, was happy in the governor’s office and refused to step aside. Langer now could count on the reconstituted NPL to back his campaign. Anti-Langer Leaguers, known as rumpers, were defiant. They refused to run on a ticket with Wild Bill Langer. Not surprisingly, the rumpers held their own convention and nominated Welford as the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Of the 180,000 votes cast in the Republican primary in June 1936, Welford bested Langer in the primary election by a paltry 695 votes.
With support from the NPL, Langer thought he could still win the seat, and so he filed to run in the fall general election as an independent. As a result, three candidates entered the field: Welford, the Republican; John Moses, the Democrat; and Langer, the independent. It was an especially bitter campaign, with each candidate attacking the other repeatedly. Rampant corruption in the Langer administration was a constant refrain. Welford charged that Langer “lives for politics. He doesn’t live for farmers, nor does he live for anybody unless he can get them in his clutches.”
Never a shy, retiring type, Langer went on the offense, accusing Welford of raising taxes and increasing state appropriations by $9 million while the Langer administration reduced taxes by $5.5 million. As for corruption in his administration, Langer sought to turn the multiple lawsuits to his advantage. “The federal government spent nearly a million dollars to find me honest,” he boasted. “I am the only candidate inspected by the United States government and found to be 100 percent pure.”
Langer’s gambit worked. He narrowly defeated Walter Welford, earning 36 percent of the vote. It was the first time an independent candidate had been elected governor of North Dakota. He triumphantly returned to the office he had left more than two years earlier.
Langer entered office in 1937 accompanied by bitter feelings. He had amassed many political enemies during his political life. Shrugging off criticism, he focused on helping North Dakota farmers suffering from the Great Depression. He strong-armed the legislature to appropriate $6 million for welfare at precisely the moment that the state’s coffers were almost depleted. In 1937, when wheat prices fell from 89 cents to 37 cents per bushel, Langer directed the state-owned mill to pay 35 cents per bushel over the new market price, claiming he had saved the state’s farmers more than $12 million. He repeated the action a year later.
Farmers appreciated the governor’s actions, but stories of corruption in the administration soon circulated, reinforcing the stories about Langer’s ethical and legal laxity. Three of the governor’s friends had profited from purchasing county bonds at a discounted price and selling them to the Bank of North Dakota at full face value. In 1938, the State Board of Equalization reduced the assessment on Great Northern Railroad property by $3 million around the time that a railroad attorney bought $25,000 of worthless Mexican land stocks from the governor and never sought delivery of the stock certificates.
Even when Langer was not directly involved, he found himself embroiled in scandal. After the board of administration fired the president of the North Dakota Agricultural College (AC) in Fargo and dismissed several faculty members, the AC lost its accreditation. The American Association of University Professors censured the institution. Because many members of the board of administration were Langer supporters, the governor received criticism for his willingness to politicize education and risk AC’s accreditation for his own political ends.
Against this backdrop, Langer set his sights on his next political goal—winning a seat in the United States Senate in 1938. The problem was that Gerald P. Nye, the incumbent Republican, had no intention of vacating the office without putting up a fight. Langer believed, rightly as it turned out, that his nemesis Nye had pushed for Langer’s prosecution in the 1934 and 1935 trials. To defeat the incumbent in the 1938 election would be sweet revenge. Unfortunately for Langer, Nye won both the Republican primary as well as the fall general election. Langer would have to wait until North Dakota’s other Senate seat was up for election in 1940.
After gearing up for a fight, Langer was ruthless during the 1940 campaign. Using his leverage with the NPL, Langer maneuvered to oust the incumbent senator, Lynn J. Frazier. It worked. Langer captured the Republican nomination. In the fall election, Langer won the Senate seat by more than 100,000 votes.
As with so many things in Langer’s political life, the election victory was not the end of the story. When the senator-elect arrived in Washington, D.C., on January 3, 1941, to swear his oath of office, the Senate majority leader, Democrat Alben Barkley of Kentucky, acknowledged that the Senate had received a petition from several North Dakota citizens alleging that Langer had engaged in bribery in leasing government property, had received kickbacks, and collected fees for services that he had not provided. In short, he was unfit to be seated as a United States senator owing to his “moral turpitude.”
Barkley recommended that Langer be seated “without prejudice” and his case be referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, chaired by Senator Tom Connally of Texas, for a judgment. Sixteen members served on the committee, including Gerald P. Nye and California’s Hiram Johnson. Both Nye and Johnson asked to be excused.
Because Langer was seated without prejudice, the Senate could rule on his admission by a majority vote as opposed to the two-thirds vote required for expulsion. Langer swore his oath; afterward, Senate leaders submitted the petition to the committee, which created a subcommittee to hold hearings on the matter. The investigation and debates lasted for more than a year.
On January 29, 1942, the Committee on Privileges and Elections, with a new chairman, Senator Theodore F. Green of Rhode Island, presented its majority report. The committee agreed that Langer met the constitutional requirements of age and citizenship, and he had not acted in a disorderly manner, but that he lacked the “moral fitness to be a senator” and should be excluded from the Senate if a majority voted against him. Having listened to testimony about Langer’s activities throughout his public career, most committee members expressed outrage at Langer’s “lawlessness, shot-gun law enforcement, jail-breaking” as well as the man’s tendency to obstruct the administration of justice. Langer's behavior, the majority concluded, demonstrated “a continuous, contemptuous, and shameful disregard for the high concepts of public duty.”
The minority report objected to the tone of the majority report. According to the minority, the senators had never reviewed the entirety of an elected official’s career. They suggested that the witnesses were unreliable, and the alleged evidence was little more than unsubstantiated hearsay compiled by Langer’s political opponents.
The committee voted 13-3 not to seat Langer, which meant that the issue would come before the full Senate for adjudication. On March 9, 1942, floor debate opened, and it lasted two weeks. Langer watched as his colleagues argued over whether he was guilty of “moral turpitude,” as the term was loosely defined. His supporters vehemently defended his right to serve, arguing that the voters should decide on whether he was qualified. To disqualify a senator based on supposed moral turpitude was to change the meaning of the United States Constitution, which imposed no such prohibition.
Langer’s case came down to whether he should be denied his seat based on a majority vote or on a two-thirds vote. A Senate majority decided that refusing to set him was tantamount to expulsion, and expelling a senator required the higher standard. In any case, Langer’s opponents could not even muster a simple majority. In the final vote, which occurred on March 27, 1942, 52 senators agreed to seat him, and 32 voted against Langer. On September 17 of that year, the Senate agreed to pay $16,500 in attorney fees to reimburse Langer for the defense of his seat.
He retained his position in the United States Senate, becoming a vocal isolationist during World War II. At war’s end, Langer was one of only two senators to vote against adoption of the United Nations charter. To his legion of political opponents, he was a corrupt, unprincipled, outlandish figure, but North Dakota voters loved him. They repeatedly reelected him, and he served until his death in 1959.
Late in his career, when asked what drove “Wild Bill” to act in sometimes baffling ways, Langer disputed the idea that he was a political enigma. “I am the most predictable damn fellow in the United States Senate,” he claimed. “I am always on the side of the underdog.” Until the day he died, William Langer was proud of the appellation that was sometimes applied to him: “fighter for the people.”