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Mr. White Goes to Washington


Back in January, we brought you the story of Frank White, North Dakota’s eighth governor. He was the first governor to serve two terms, largely because he eliminated the state’s debt while simultaneously overseeing the addition of the north wing of the original capitol building. White was a civil engineer, a farmer and a banker. He also commanded the ND National Guard in both the Spanish-American War and World War I.

White’s eventual rise to the post of U.S. Treasurer was unprecedented for someone from a state as sparsely populated and non-wealthy as ours. John Burke had done it only because Woodrow Wilson owed him a favor for helping him get elected president. Not so with Governor White – he was a relative unknown at the national level, and he had no favors to call in. Until recently, the full story of how White got the job has gone almost untold.

White found ND politics drastically changed when he returned from WWI. Researcher Kevin Rudlund states, “North Dakota politics had been thrown into disarray following the Nonpartisan League (NPL) takeover of the state’s government and Republican machinery in 1916. Matters only became more clouded when the Independent Voters Association (IVA), an organization consisting of ‘true’ Republicans and Democrats, was formed in 1918 to fight the NPL. The political atmosphere in the state was highly charged, as both groups circulated vicious rumors and attacked one other at every opportunity.”

Frank White planned to run as a Republican for the U.S. Senate, but his party was split – the NPL and the Independents were essentially the left and right segments of the Republican party. The party’s incumbent, Asle Gronna, hoped to gain the endorsement of both groups by taking the middle ground, but it backfired. Neither side wanted a moderate, and the NPL endorsed Dr. Edwin Ladd, a highly respected professor at the ND Agricultural College.

Gronna then took a hard right and tried to cozy up to the IVA, but they hesitated. It finally came down to Ladd against Gronna or White, with the last two danger of neutralizing each other. Several IVA campaign managers asked White to withdraw, saying they’d get him a better deal, possibly even the U.S. Treasury job. But, White said he couldn’t be bought and refused.

White never learned who exactly engineered what happened next, but he suddenly read in the Fargo Forum that he had withdrawn from the race. The IVA Central Committee had endorsed Gronna and adjourned, and even if White refuted it, he was now sitting on a powder keg. If he exposed the IVA’s treachery, the NPL could possibly use the information to bring down the entire ticket. In the end, White formally withdrew and had to endure the disappointment and scorn of his supporters, especially military veterans.

Humiliated and disgusted, White decided he had to go after the appointment of U.S. Treasurer. For help, he turned to his long-time friend, U.S. Senator Porter McCumber, who’d been in office 22 years. McCumber was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and he supported Harding, who won the presidential election that year.

McCumber later told why he helped White attain the appointment: “For many years, he has been one of my staunch supporters,” he said, “and during all of this time he has never asked a favor of me, nor has anyone else for him.”

Rudlund writes, “...it was widely felt in Valley City that both White and his wife...would be sorely missed. When White left for Washington D.C. on (April 29th, 1921) the city band and a large crowd of supporters showed him off.”

Source: Rodlund, Kevin James, “Frank White and His Appointment as United States Treasurer in 1921,” Fall 1994

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm