Rise to power ends rapidly

J. Warren Keifer may have managed to avoid the whirlpool caused by the opposing forces of Republican Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, but a historian said Keifer’s speakership ran aground when he crossed one of the rising powers of the 1880s — the press.

William Kinnison, a scholar and a retired Wittenberg University president, has a longstanding interest in Keifer, who he calls “quite a modern guy.”

Keifer was born on a farm near the Revolutionary War-era Battle of Peckuwe — currently home to George Rogers Clark Park. In addition to serving in Congress, he was a general in the Civil and Spanish-American wars and was part of an attempt to create a group similar to the United Nations on the eve of World War I. Kinnison said it was a smaller territorial dispute that sunk Keifer’s speakership.

There’s no debate about how it began: On the last night of a House session, when the press gallery was largely empty, Keifer approved a plan to let family members sit in the section. The press saw in the seemingly innocuous move something more sinister: retaliation.

On Jan. 29, 1884, the New York Times said Keifer had been angry because of reports his selection was part of a “notorious bargain” that required his “absolute subserviency” to the factions that elected him. The paper also said Keifer wearied of press criticism that he appointed a nephew to a post.

Said the Times, “When opportunity offered at the close of Congress, he indicated his dislike of the press by assisting in an effort to throw the press galleries open to the families of members of the House.”

When this tempest in a teapot boiled over, the controversy pitted Keifer against the dean of the press corps, Civil War hero Henry Boynton of the staunchly Republican Cincinnati Commercial Gazette.

Kinnison said Boynton “blew a gasket” at Keifer’s move, in part because Boynton had an agreement with the previous speaker that the gallery would be reserved for full-time journalists, a move designed to boost the profession’s standing.

Keifer accused Boynton of sparking the controversy because he’d refused Boynton’s illegal attempts to influence legislation.

In a stinging public letter, Keifer said: “You have so often been shown to be a liar and defamer of character that it has become unnecessary to deny anything you say.”

When the House of Representatives investigated the matter, but refused to substantiate Keifer’s charges, Boynton wrote letters accusing Keifer of abusing his power.

“It is unnecessary to reply to your puerile charges touching my general course as a correspondent,” he said, “except to repeat that they, also, are without substantial foundation and evidently are invented to distract attention from grave charges of official misconduct brought against yourself.”

Keifer was still in Congress — but no longer a party leader — when Boynton’s letters were published and the controversy grew. Keifer failed to win his party’s nomination in the next election.

As a footnote, Kinnison said the press section rule kept black and female reporters, who tended to be part-time, out of the gallery until 1947.

He said that’s something Keifer, a staunch advocate of blacks’ rights, likely would have noticed.