The Cutting Edge
A national figure of the Progressive era and New Deal, Bronson M. Cutting is the most important New Mexico politician you've never heard of.
By Stephen Fox
Even among current political junkies, the name Bronson M. Cutting does not stir much recognition today. In his time, between the world wars, however, Cutting was the most compelling political figure in New Mexico, with his own loyal base and machine. More than anybody else, he broke the state's traditional domination by its corrupt "Santa Fe Ring" of political crooks and corporations, and he then helped usher New Mexico into the progressive 20th century. He attained these feats despite his precarious status as a quintuple outsider, an eastern Anglo Protestant liberal in a state where each of those labels then made him a minority. And he was gay as well, though carefully closeted.
Bronson M. Cutting, scion of a wealthy Eastern family
who became a US Senator from New Mexico.
Beyond New Mexico, Cutting achieved national stature as a leading member of the progressive insurgents in the United States Senate. Here his activities raise echoes among today's political swamps: A dreary string of disastrous Republican policies had plunged the nation into a prolonged economic crisis, one that challenged the easy shibboleths of the past. To meet this crisis, a new Democratic president had been elected, but the emergency measures of his administration's first two years had not yet fixed the economy. So Cutting's choices in the midterm elections of 1934 were to support the progressive president, criticize him from the left, or look for a more radical solution — the same options that now face progressives in the fall of 2010.
Bronson Cutting was rich: the most essential biographical fact about him. The money allowed him a luxurious life and powered his political career — but it embarrassed him, too. When he turned 21, in 1909, he inherited his share of the substantial family fortune. He refused to accept it. Told that he could not do so, given the family's financial arrangements, he shut himself in his room for two days, brooding in a gloomy solitude. His later political work may be understood, in part, as a determined effort to justify and compensate for the Cutting millions — to work off his unearned wealth in useful service to people less fortunate.
Cutting was born at his patrician New York family's summer home, "Westbrook," with its 931 acres and staff of 32, on the south shore of Long Island. He grew up there and at a brownstone mansion on 72nd Street in Manhattan. His father prospered in railroads and banking, then retired to a life of good works and political reform. Bronson went to prep school at Groton and, inevitably, college at Harvard, just a few years behind Franklin D. Roosevelt at both schools. ("I've known him since he was a boy," FDR said later.) Among his classmates in Harvard's celebrated class of 1910 were Walter Lippmann, T.S. Eliot and John Reed.
Poor health — apparently tuberculosis — forced him to withdraw from college in the fall of his senior year. Like many other sickly easterners in these years, he came out to New Mexico to die or be cured. He arrived in Santa Fe in July 1910, recognized its unique character, and stayed for the rest of his life. In 1912 he bought control of the Santa Fe New Mexican, the oldest daily newspaper in the state, along with its weekly Spanish edition, El Nuevo Mejicano. These publications, the two most influential papers in New Mexico at the time, formed the springboard for his political career. Like his father and uncle back in New York, who had battled the thugs of Tammany Hall, Cutting aimed to inject good-government principles of honesty and transparency into a notoriously corrupt polity.
As both state and territory, New Mexico had been misgoverned for years by cynical hoodlums from both parties. Republicans were split into northern and southern factions. In the north they danced to the tune called by the Maxwell Land Grant Company, coal mines and the Santa Fe Railroad; in the south it was the Phelps-Dodge and Chino mining companies and the El Paso Railroad. The Republicans also made mutually profitable alliances, blatantly exchanging bribes for votes, with the old Spanish land-grant ranchers and stockmen who controlled the Hispanic counties in the north. The Democrats were clustered in "Little Texas," the southeastern part of New Mexico that was settled in the late 1800s by former slaveholders from the neighboring state. The Democrats were virulently racist, even by the minimal standards of 1912.
Cutting declared a plague on both their houses: Republicans were too crooked, he decided, and Democrats were too anti-Hispanic. Instead he became a party unto himself. His main allies, it turned out, were Hispanics, who then numbered about 60% of all New Mexicans. Cutting had arrived in Santa Fe as an international sophisticate, widely traveled in Europe and well read in four foreign languages, but he had never been truly immersed in Hispanic cultures. Now he learned to read and speak Spanish, visited and melted into isolated Hispanic towns in the northern part of the state, and came to appreciate an exotic world far removed from Westbrook and the brownstone on 72nd Street. Back East, he still associated mostly with Anglos, but here his friends and colleagues were mainly Hispanic.
In particular, the apparent love of his life was a young man named Antonio Jose Luna, descended from a land-grant family active in politics; Luna County was named for his uncle, Solomon Luna. Tony Luna, four years younger than Cutting, graduated from the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell in 1913. His yearbook photograph shows a handsome, self-possessed youth, looking older than his age and guarded around the eyes. Cutting then sent him East to law school at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia; how this visibly Hispanic student survived at a white southern gentleman's school in 1913 is unfathomable. After two years there Luna came home and passed the state bar. But in the fall of 1916 he fell ill from endocarditis. Cutting sat at his deathbed for many long, wrenching days as Luna seemed to rally but then died, only 24 years old. It was "the most terrible experience I have ever been through," Cutting mourned. Later he told his family that he wished to be buried near Luna at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.
Cutting's affinity for Hispanic New Mexicans and his relationship with Tony Luna coiled into a seamless circle of cause and effect, each reinforcing the other. He respected and learned from Hispanic culture, but he insisted that real ethnic progress would require more Anglo acculturation — like Tony Luna studying at a Confederate law school. "The fundamental fact about New Mexico," Cutting wrote a month after Luna's death, "is that it is not an American community at all." The state's Hispanic voters had been "systematically robbed, degraded and corrupted by the Republican ring."
Despite their numbers, they would wield no real power until they became more independent, well informed, and unbought. Therefore, "the chief duty of a citizen of New Mexico is to make Americans out of them." In the usual good-government tradition, his sincere notions of uplift were shaded by ethnic condescension.
After wartime service at the American embassy in London, Cutting returned to Santa Fe and built his political machine. At elections he and his newspapers sided impartially with Republicans or Democrats, depending on the particular issues and candidates involved; he remained independent and unpredictable. Cutting's wealth put him beyond reach of the usual bribes and corruptions. Needing nobody's money, he could decide issues on their actual merits, as defined by his progressive principles.
For years he had no interest in running for office but instead quietly built up his personal following. The American Legion provided his initial vehicle. This national organization of world-war veterans, founded in 1919, asserted the interests of the former servicemen and promoted its version of patriotic, conservative politics. In New Mexico, though, Cutting turned it to liberal purposes. Qualified for membership by his time at the London embassy, he helped start the New Mexico branch of the Legion and considered it "the one best bet for the redemption of this state." After being elected state commander in 1923, he spent the next year touring New Mexico, beating his drum for the Legion and making useful contacts. The Legion posts were mainly Anglo in the south, mostly Hispanic in the north, but the eight most active posts statewide were all Hispanic. They allowed young Hispanic veterans, exposed to a wider world by their wartime service, to participate directly, independently in politics without the interference of their local county boss.
As Cutting drove around the state, chauffeured and expedited by one of his Hispanic friends, often to places without electricity, telephones or paved roads, he became an unlikely hero in many obscure Hispanic outposts. As a kind of Anglo patron, he dispensed money and assumed loyalty in return: the system that had dominated New Mexico for centuries. Over the course of two decades, he made about 500 "loans" that were never, it was understood, to be repaid. A typical loan ran about $350 to $500; the largest was $36,000. These transactions were, depending on one's politics, either generous gifts or political bribes — probably both. In any case, they helped make Cutting a beloved, reliable figure, the only Anglo politician truly trusted and revered by the Hispanic majority. A Spanish-language newspaper in Albuquerque, the Tuerca, called him "a distinguished gentleman, who in his heart, sheltered the welfare of the heirs of this land." Precisely: Cutting gave his heart as well as his money. In many modest homes in the northern part of the state, two pictures hung prominently on the wall: Jesus Christ and Bronson Cutting.
Phillip B. Gonzales, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico, has argued that most historical accounts of Cutting's maneuvers have inflated his role and slighted his Hispanic allies. In an article in the fall 2000 issue of the scholarly journal Aztlan, Gonzales asserted that the Hispanics were not simply passive recipients of Cutting's money. Instead he was merely the latest benefactor in a long-established system that depended on reciprocal favors and active participation by both sides. Within the American Legion, new leadership came not only from Cutting but from a persistent core of Hispanic veterans: Herman and Jesus Baca, Miguel Otero Jr., and others. By the late 1920s, according to Gonzales, most Hispanic newspaper editors favored Cutting not only due to his money but because their traditional allegiance to Republican politicians had been weakened by recent economic declines in mining and sheep ranching.
Courted by both political parties, trusted by neither because of his flinty independence, supported by thousands of allies among the American Legion and Hispanics, Cutting had become the most powerful and least controllable player in New Mexico politics. Late in 1927, a Republican governor — whom he had helped elect — appointed Cutting to an empty seat in the United States Senate. A year later he won a full term on his own.
Cutting turned 40 in 1928. As he switched to the larger stage in Washington, he was just entering his prime. He was about six feet tall and 200 pounds, with a placid, unlined, cherubic face that led his closest friends to call him "Baby," short for "Babyface." In manner he was quiet, modest, retiring and conveying a sense of restraint, of things withheld. His beloved niece observed "a keen delight in the ridiculous, the grotesque, which would cause his large immobile face to expand into a slow irresistible smile." Within the Senate he was conspicuously more cultured and broadly gauged than most of his colleagues. He favored books on art, architecture, history and biography, with murder mysteries for fun, and he loved to play classical works on the piano, especially Bach. "Nobody gave me more pleasure than Bronson Cutting," recalled the writer Mary Austin, who lived in Santa Fe. "He had an extensive and intimate acquaintance with the native people; I could always talk to him. He gave me a feeling of belonging."
At about this time Cutting encountered Clifford McCarthy, who became, apparently, his most important boyfriend since Antonio Luna. They met at the home of Witter Bynner, a poet who lived an openly gay life in Santa Fe. Initially Bynner's secretary and companion, McCarthy soon spent a week at Cutting's house and declared his love for the senator. In his mid-20s, McCarthy was charming, erratic, undisciplined, exasperating and endearing. Bynner later recalled his "unfinished sentences the water-bug dartings here, there and nowhere." But, Bynner added, "the essence of him is fine." Cutting gave McCarthy money, sent him on a European tour, and saw him discreetly in Washington, New York and Santa Fe.
In the Senate, Cutting joined a small but influential group of insurgent senators that included George W. Norris of Iowa, William E. Borah of Idaho, Hiram Johnson of California, Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Robert M. La Follette Jr. of Wisconsin. All these men are now better known to historians than Cutting, but at the time he was considered their peer and one of their leaders. Most were, like Cutting, old Bull Moose Republicans, inspired by Theodore Roosevelt in his late radical phase.
A man of few words, accustomed to working quietly behind the scenes, Cutting spoke sparingly from the Senate floor. He co-sponsored a bill to grant Philippine independence (perhaps a reflection of his Hispanic ties back home), urged the diplomatic recognition of the USSR, and opposed the censorship of books like Lady Chatterley's Lover by the Customs Bureau and Post Office. "To decide what an intelligent adult may read," he said, "is a task for a superman, and supermen are not apt to be found in the poorly paid Bureau of Customs."
The common thread in most of his activities was personal autonomy: that individual behavior should not be unreasonably constrained by the government. In New Mexico, Cutting had always emphasized independence and privacy — his goal, he confided to Herman Baca in 1931, was not "to control people's opinions, but to get them to think for themselves." Perhaps he also stressed those ideals as a gay man, at a time when homosexuals generally had to live in shadows and fear.
Despite his outward modesty and unflamboyant style, the national press quickly noticed Cutting. "One of the most intelligent and clear-thinking of the Insurgents," reported Washington journalists Robert S. Allen and Drew Pearson. "The most intelligent and most cultured man in the Progressive group," said the American Mercury magazine. "The Senate's leading liberal," according to the radical journal Common Sense. "One of its most fearless, intelligent and genuinely distinguished members," The New Republic agreed. Observers speculated that he would eventually run for president.
Cutting's nominal Republican affiliation was dislodged by President Herbert Hoover's inadequate response to the Depression. As the prolonged economic crisis worsened, Cutting became more radical. With his insurgent colleagues he organized a Conference of Progressives in Washington in March 1931 that deplored Hoover's failings and called for various untried remedies. "Cutting is so much of a New Yorker," wrote the journalist Edmund Wilson, covering the conference, "that one forgets he's Senator from New Mexico. He's rather like an English liberal" — aiming, Wilson surmised, for something like the English system, by which Congress would control the president and cabinet and set policies. In the absence of any effective presidential leadership on the Depression, Cutting reasoned, Congress would have to step in.
For the showdown election of 1932, Cutting preferred Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate ("he would make the best President of the three"), but he settled warily on the Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Cutting machine helped carry New Mexico for FDR. In return the new president offered Cutting a cabinet post as Secretary of the Interior. Guarding his independence and not sure of Roosevelt's progressive intentions, Cutting turned down the job. He and the other Senate insurgents then staked out positions slightly to the left of the New Deal, generally supportive but occasionally critical of it.
Conservatives of the time resisted change by citing tendentious readings of the Constitution. Cutting believed that perhaps infallible wisdom was not to be expected from a small group of rich white men meeting in Philadelphia way back in 1787. From the Senate floor in 1934, he scorned "the doctrine of the infallibility of the Holy American Constitution." Engulfed by the roaring calamity of the Depression, current needs should trump the founding text. "It could well be rewritten," said Cutting, and perhaps it was now time to throw "a lot of that ancient and venerable document into the trash can."
Cutting's solutions to the crisis emphasized banking reform and the revival of consumer spending. In a magazine article in the spring of 1934, he regretted that FDR had not nationalized the banks on taking office. "Private banking is doomed in this country by the New Deal," he declared, and should be scrapped. The Constitution, as an 18th-century artifact, "needs more than an occasional amendment to bring it up to date." The situation demanded national planning to balance consumption with production and to distribute wealth more fairly — but "without the shackling of human intellect" then being imposed by Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Instead he called for a new consumers party to save American democracy: "The consumers constitute the people of the United States. They are the one and only hope of what we call the 'capitalistic system.'" Like Roosevelt, Cutting hoped to reform American capitalism in order to salvage it.
The two men were in some ways so alike: from similar old-money, old-stock class backgrounds in New York, alumni of the same rarefied schools with many connections and friends in common. Now, in elective positions far removed from their origins, they broadly agreed about what to do. But they fatefully fell out over an issue that Cutting considered his own turf: the rights of veterans from the world war. As part of the Economy Act of 1933, the administration had reduced benefits for disabled veterans. Cutting, appalled and furious, helped lead the congressional uprising in response, over the president's veto, and in the spring of 1934 Roosevelt was dealt his first serious defeat by Congress.
FDR held the grudge. When Cutting ran for reelection to the Senate in the fall of 1934, the administration mobilized substantial forces behind the Democratic candidate, Dennis Chavez. Cutting's supporters retorted that he had, at some risk to himself, forsaken the Republican party in 1932 to support Roosevelt — and the president was now displaying ingratitude and bad manners. "It is small, and ungrateful, and cruel," said Hiram Johnson. New Mexicans were treated to a vicious campaign, scarred by mutual charges of corruption and vote-buying. As in his 1928 run for the Senate, opponents made oblique references to Cutting's homosexuality; one Democrat pointed out that he was married and Cutting "is not and never will be."
Cutting barely won, 76,245 votes to 74,954, with the support of Hispanic voters, the state's American Legion and left-wing Democrats. The Anglo Cutting beat the Hispanic Chavez in most Hispanic areas. He was the only victorious Republican in New Mexico amid an historic Democratic sweep.
Here is why you haven't heard of Bronson Cutting: In the spring of 1935, Democrats in New Mexico launched investigations of the 1934 senatorial election. In late April Cutting flew home to respond to the charges. He then had to return quickly to Washington to work for a bill to accelerate the payment of veterans' bonuses. On May 5 he boarded a TWA flight in Albuquerque; it would stop at Kansas City, where Clifford McCarthy would join him; together they would fly on to Washington. But a lowering cloud ceiling prevented the landing in Kansas City. The plane, running short of fuel, crashed near Kirksville, Missouri. Cutting and three others were killed.
Cliff McCarthy went to Kirksville and took charge of the mangled body. He brought it home to Cutting's mother in New York. The funeral was held at St. James Protestant Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue. Witter Bynner attended the service, sharing a pew with J.P. Morgan and President Roosevelt's mother. "Impressive and moving," Bynner noted. "Cliff looked like a ghost. No chance to speak to him." Cutting was buried in the family vault at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
He was only 46 years old. At age 46, Abraham Lincoln was an unknown Midwestern lawyer; Woodrow Wilson, a college president; Dwight Eisenhower, chief of staff to General Douglas MacArthur; Ronald Reagan, a fading B-movie actor; and George W. Bush, a reformed drunk running a baseball team. If they had all died at that age, they would be obscure too.
"It would be difficult to conceive," Common Sense keened, "of a greater blow to the progressive-radical movement in America." Dennis Chavez was appointed to Cutting's Senate seat, and he dominated New Mexico politics for the next three decades. Most of Cutting's Hispanic supporters became Chavez Democrats. As the state entered a long period of Democratic control, the old Santa Fe Ring of corrupt Republicans withered away. In the 75 years since Cutting's death, no other US Senator from New Mexico has matched his national reputation.
A historian from Boston, Stephen Fox moved to Silver City with his wife, Alexandra Todd, in the spring of 2008. He'll be speaking about Aldo Leopold and the Southwest in WILL's Lunch and Learn series at the WNMU Global Resource Center on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at noon.