Alaska Life

For Alaska’s first senators, an epic battle of ego came down to a coin flip

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Any football fan will swear to you on the importance of the coin flip. On occasion, a coin flip might be a tool of political last resort, like the 2006 toss that decided the Democratic candidate for House District 37 between Bryce Edgmon and Carl Moses. Elsewhere, coin tosses are generally relegated to matters of lesser distinction, like which restaurant for dinner. And that is probably how it should be.

Then there is the case of Alaska’s original senators, Ernest Gruening (1887-1974) and Bob Bartlett (1904-1968). Elected in 1958, they represented Alaska at the dawning of statehood, a moment when the nation swiveled its spotlight firmly north. And at this moment, their personal relationship unraveled for good. Given a decision of minor importance beyond their egos, how did these Alaskans respond? They chose to decide the matter not with polite debate but with a coin toss, ending up playing a game on their knees upon a shabby floor.

Ernest Gruening is a strong example of the power of incumbency. From 1934 to 1939, he served as the Department of the Interior’s director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions. In late 1939, he was appointed governor of Alaska, a position he held through 1953. If the latter title seems like a lateral move at best, that is because it was. While the governor position offered a higher salary, the reassignment was essentially a punishment, a way to remove him from Washington. In fact, he initially rejected the move. Then, while on vacation, he learned from a radio broadcast that President Franklin Roosevelt, who had a low opinion of Gruening, had appointed him to Alaska anyway.

Though a political appointee with no previous ties to Alaska, Gruening stuck around. After his lengthy tenure as governor, he remained a noted advocate for statehood. There simply were not many other politicians with an Alaska-wide reputation. His 1958 senatorial run, his first successful election, relied heavily upon his long-term visibility.

Though also not from Alaska, Bob Bartlett’s roots here go further back. Born in Seattle, he attended the University of Washington before graduating from what is now the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1925. After a long stint as a reporter, he moved into public service and, in early 1939, was appointed Secretary of Alaska.

After Gruening was appointed governor in late 1939, he immediately proposed that Bartlett share in the duties of operating the territory, beginning a generally positive and effective four-year partnership. In 1944, Bartlett won his first election, becoming Alaska’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Like his predecessor Anthony Dimond, he was Alaska’s voice on the national stage. His 1958 senatorial win was his eighth successful election, after winning seven consecutive terms as delegate.

Partnerships aside, the two men were little alike. As described by historian Claus-M. Naske, Bartlett became the “consummate politician,” skilled in the backroom battles behind every successful legislative act. Gruening lacked the same deftness with political skullduggery and was as subtle as a charging moose. At his best, he was an effective steamroller. At his worst, he was ignored as a relic.

By 1958, their relationship had devolved into icy disdain. Bartlett resented the presence and success of a political lightweight willing to assume more credit for statehood than he was due. Gruening, perhaps, failed to see how far the man he had once thought of like a son had progressed. Per Anchorage Daily Times editor Bob Atwood, Gruening lacked the “charisma that made for warm friendships.”

In a later argument, Gruening asked why Bartlett disliked him so much. Bartlett responded, “How can you approach logically a man who distorts facts, always, to suit his own fancy and his own needs and desires? It is impossible.”

The only, and backhanded at that, compliment Bartlett could garner for Gruening was the latter’s ability for self-promotion. In a 1963 letter, Bartlett wrote that future historians would “understandably give Ernest a place as the foremost leader of the statehood movement he simply does not deserve. They do so because he, farsighted, has written his own history of what went on and this is the published work to which historians of the present and future have to refer. No one else has put down the true and contrary story. That is my fault.”

In other words, they did not like each other too much. Though their animosity rarely tipped over into the public, the polite façade shattered shortly before entering the Senate.

Gruening Bartlett

Every state has a senior and junior senator. It is usually an easy distinction. Senator terms overlap so that no state has both senators up for election at the same time. The longer-serving senator is senior. It is not so simple with new states, with new senators elected at the same time.

Seniority offers some benefits, such as preferential committee assignments and seating, but is in the main a polite honorific. But it was an honor that both Bartlett and Gruening wanted. Each thought the other should concede. Bartlett felt he deserved the prestige since he had been Alaska’s elected representative since 1944.

During the ensuing discussion, Gruening suggested a coin toss. Bartlett agreed if only to put an end to the matter. Bartlett later wrote, “To this day I can vividly remember Ernest leaning back in his chair, putting his hands across his belly, assuming the small half smile so familiar, and informing me that we had better give further consideration to (a decisive coin toss).”

As the senators could not end their terms simultaneously, one of them also would have to accept a shorter term. The decision on term length was folded into the seniority proceedings.

The showdown was a spectacle. On Jan. 6, 1959, a crowd of reporters, photographers, and the senators themselves packed into Gruening’s temporary office in the Old Senate Office Building, now the Russell Senate Office Building. Photographers stood on chairs for clearer angles. Only one individual in the throng had the foresight to bring a coin worthy of the moment. Associated Press reporter Frank W. Vaille carried a 1923 silver dollar and thus earned the right to perform the toss itself.

There were two official tosses. The first coin flip determined which new senator would draw first for term length in a separate ceremony held the following day. The second coin flip determined seniority.

For the first toss, Bartlett called heads and lost. Gruening would have first shot at a longer term. For the second toss, Gruening called heads and lost. Bartlett became the senior senator from Alaska. For the benefit of the photographers, Gruening and Bartlett re-created the toss several times, repeatedly kneeling to examine the coin. One of the reporters wrote that it “looked for all the world like a three-cornered crap game.”

The next day, Senate staff inserted three slips of paper into capsules and placed them into a box. The slips offered a chance at a term of two, four, and six years. Subsequent terms would be for the regular length of six years. For Bartlett and Gruening, the longer the term, the better. Both hoped to avoid a two-year term and having to run for reelection so soon.

Gruening reached in and pulled out the four-year term. Bartlett, unfortunately, drew the two-year term and had to campaign again the next year. He won, but the process was costly in time and money. Still, he enjoyed the petty thrill of thereafter referring to Gruening in private as “Junior.”

A relatively minor matter of little to no importance that could have — should have — been decided quickly and collegially instead became a multi-day, passive-aggressive, public display. Neither would bend, except to get on their knees in a dingy office to stare at a coin while photographers gleefully flashed away.

From their election as senators through Bartlett’s death in 1968, they never socialized and talked to one another only as necessary.

Years later, in his 1973 autobiography “Many Battles,” Gruening invented a new narrative of these events. He claimed that he had “offered to concede,” but Bartlett insisted on the decisive toss for seniority. In these small ways, people often rewrite their own history in more pleasing shapes and tones.

Key references:

“Bartlett Gets Seniority.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 6, 1959, 1.

Cole, Terrence. Fighting for the Forty-Ninth Star: C. W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2010.

Gruening, Ernest. Many Battles: The Autobiography of Ernest Gruening. New York: Liveright, 1973.

Johnson, Robert David. Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Naske, Clause-M. Edward Lewis Bob Bartlett of Alaska: A Life in Politics. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1979.

Smith, A. Robert. “Reporter Details Colorful Events for First Senators.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, January 19, 1959, 1, 3.


David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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