Norris, McCarl considered for presidency in '36 election

Friday, January 11, 2002

In 1936 there were actually two men from McCook who were being considered by some for the top position in our government...the presidency. One, of course, was George W. Norris, but the other native son was John Raymond McCarl.

His widowed mother, Mrs. Sara McCarl arrived in McCook from Des Moines, Iowa, with her six children in its early days. The McCarl family was described in a March 31, 1934, Gazette article as "resourceful, thrifty and ambitious". Raymond worked at odd jobs while going to school, spent summers working for the Burlington railroad and worked for McCook attorney Webster Morlan. He played halfback on the first high school football team and sang tenor in the "Home Town" quartet.

He attended the University of Nebraska law school, earning his L.L.B. in record time, at age 24 in 1903, and came back to McCook to practice law. He married Ethel Barnett, daughter of McCook businessman, A. Barnett. When Congressman George W. Norris's executive secretary Fletcher Merwin resigned in 1905, Merwin recommended that McCarl take his place in Washington D.C.

A notice in the July 6, 1906, Tribune noted that, "Private secretary and Mrs. J.R. McCarl arrived home last Saturday on #13 from Washington D.C. where they have been living during the session of congress which closed on last Saturday." In 1912, McCarl was finding it impossible to live in Washington on the $1,500 annual salary provided for congressmen's secretaries and returned to McCook to live. While he conducted his law business, he also directed Norris's 1912 campaign.

The November 13, 1913, Red Willow County Gazette reported that C.E. Eldred and the law firm of Cordeal & McCarl was consolidating as Eldred, Cordeal & McCarl and would keep their offices in the McCook National Bank building. "Mr. McCarl, while acting as private secretary to Sen. G.W. Norris, will not be actively associated in the business, but will devote his entire time to his official duties. He will return to Washington as soon as the new arrangement is completed."

Richard Lowitt, biographer, writes in his first of three volumes on Norris's life, "He knew Nebraska's political scene well and had directed two of Norris's political campaigns. Able, hard-working, and pleasant, McCarl was liked and trusted by most political leaders. Norris had complete faith in McCarl's honesty, thoroughness and efficiency." Again quoting Lowitt's first book, McCarl wrote to J.H. Christner on April 12, 1912, "Well, I have been having a hell of a time. Possibly you have an idea it isn't a job to try to perfect a sort of a working organization in about seventy-five counties in which you don't know a total of fifty people. Well, that's been my job and I have been working at it for many long, weary days, but I believe I am getting things in rather good shape, hope so anyway." Can you imagine covering seventy-five Nebraska counties in 1912, and trying to communicate with your boss in Washington!

By mid-October, 1912, McCarl had received over 200 requests for Norris to speak in various Nebraska communities and since he couldn't deliver his candidate to all locations he did the next best thing. McCarl prepared a two-column plate with a cut of Norris and a statement of some of the things he had accomplished in his political life and sent it to Republican editors throughout the state. I had never thought of how hard it would be to put out a press release in 1912 from the middle of the Sandhills. Having all those metal plates cut...what a huge task but Ray McCarl did his job well. McCarl's organizational skills were put to use in several presidential and congressional elections.

Later, McCarl was appointed executive secretary of the Republican congressional committee. In 1918, Sen. George Norris opposed America's entry into World War I. It was not a popular position and Norris was in danger of losing his elected job in the Senate. Biographer Lowitt wrote that McCarl thought defeat was inevitable and McCarl sought to salvage his career, resigned from the Norris staff and went to work for Sen. Simeon Fess, chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Lowitt wrote that Norris never really recovered from losing McCarl until 1926 when John Robertson, Norris's son-in-law became his chief assistant and private secretary.

The major role in the life of John Raymond McCarl was still ahead of him though. The U.S. Congress created the general accounting office under President Wilson. It was up to President Warren G. Harding, however, to name the first occupant of the position of comptroller general. John Raymond McCarl was named the first Comptroller General of the United States by President Harding on July 1, 1921. It was a unique position. He could not be removed from his job except by impeachment. His term would be 15 years, ending June 30, 1936. He was not eligible to be reappointed. No one was his boss. Neither the House nor the Senate could tell him what to do, nor intimidate him. The president of the United States could tell him what to do but Ray McCarl could also tell the president what he could (and couldn't) do. This man from McCook was the final arbiter of how the government could spend its money, interpreting each case according to the laws governing the expenditures involved.

He had several nicknames, including the "Czar" and the "Watchdog of the Treasury". He was also referred to as the "most unpopular man in Washington".

There are many stories of him clashing with the Roosevelt administration and what were called "alphabetical agencies" (WPA-TVA-CCC) which tried to spend taxpayer's money in ways that did not comply with congressional mandates. He had one big passion outside of the He was a friend of actor Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, actress Mary Pickford. McCarl was photographed playing golf with Fairbanks on the Congressional Country Club and "Sandy" Armour, assistant pro at the club, who was also Ray McCarl's brother-in-law. McCarl was vice-president of the Congressional Country Club and he and his wife lived there sometimes during the summers.

The story of this McCookite and his special place in our country's history is too long for one column. Ray McCarl's sister's daughter, Kay Cashen Flaska, was kind enough to make copies for me of many newspaper clippings and next week I'll share some of the gutsy moves this former McCook lawyer made during his historic tenure as the first Comptroller General.

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