"Ask not what your country can do for you . . ."
By Bill Clutter
Excerpted from the prologue and edited from chapter 45 “The Aftermath of the CIPS case”, from his book COAL TAR: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed are Killing US with Cancer
"This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right. A wonderful read.”
In 1962, Rachel Carson, a scientist, released her book Silent Spring, which led to a movement to save the environment of the planet. Silent Spring described how the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, was killing songbirds in mass numbers. DDT threatened the very symbol of our democracy--the American bald eagle--which was on the brink of extinction from the pesticide farmers were applying to their fields.
The first widespread use of DDT occurred during World War II. DDT was sprayed on Jews who were being held in concentration camps by the Nazis to kill lice that spread typhoid fever. During 1943 and 1944, a pharmacologist working for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Hebert O. Calvery, studied the toxicity of DDT on laboratory animals and discovered it was lethal. His findings were sent in a “restricted” report to the War Department, which issued a bulletin warning American soldiers not to let the oil or dust come into contact with their skin, and to avoid spraying in areas that drained into waterways or near livestock that would be consumed by humans.
As World War II ended in 1945, DDT was marketed for sale in the United States by chemical companies as an agricultural and household insecticide. Photos of children being hosed with DDT are among the most chilling images from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Chemical farming had drastically increased crop yields by eradicating insects, but came at deadly cost to the environment. And a new epidemic was emerging in populations of people who were being exposed to DDT—cancer.
Much of the story Rachel Carson told in Silent Spring was set in central Illinois, describing the way DDT had killed the songbirds. By the time I was a boy growing up in the 1960s, the eastern bluebird had all but vanished from central Illinois, like the Bluebird passenger train of the Wabash Railroad. My father told us when he was a child, bluebirds colored the meadows and sang the most beautiful love songs each spring. Their disappearance, along with other songbirds, coincided with the application of DDT and with corporate farming that bulldozed the rows of Osage orange trees that were their habitat.
My first awareness of cancer hit close to home. Our babysitter, Ginger Varner, the daughter of my Dad’s best friend, Cecil Varner, was likely a victim of DDT. She was born in 1952. Her parents owned a farm in Oreana north of Decatur. She was Student Council President at Argenta High School; a member of the National Honor Society; Future Teachers of America; and recipient of the Daughters of the American Revolution Award. Ginger was 18 when she died of cancer at Decatur Memorial Hospital in April 1971.
The year before Ginger died, President Richard Nixon responded to the will of the people by creating an agency intent on protecting public health and the environment through his executive order establishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA. President Nixon also proposed a massive investment to fund medical research to find a cure for cancer. However, the best medicine has always been prevention. The first mission of the Environmental Protection Agency was to adopt regulations for enforcing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1970. The volume of chemical carcinogens entering the environment was greatly reduced, but not eliminated. Over time, corporate polluters have been successful in corrupting the very the agency that regulates them.
Rachel Carson was the first scientist to publicly challenge the orthodoxy of the chemical industry. Her book persuaded Americans that something must be done to protect the environment, and helped change the course of government policies.
On August 29, 1962, after the release of Silent Spring, a reporter asked President John F. Kennedy, “There appears to be growing concern among scientists of the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects from the wide-spread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?” Kennedy replied, “Yes, and I know that they already are. I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.”
This is an example of the power of the media and the written word.
The chemical producers, along with major corporate farming interests, hired teams of public relations firms to flood American newspapers and magazines with the benefits of using DDT. They presented reporters with “scientists” wearing lab coats for TV interviews who countered the thesis of Carson’s book, telling Americans it would be impractical to eliminate every risk. They said the benefits of the synthetic pesticide outweighed whatever slight risks there might be.
Eric Severeid of CBS interviewed Carson for a special report that was aired on television at a time when there were only three television networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Before the program aired, major advertisers threatened to pull their advertising if CBS aired the program. Executives at CBS believed strongly in a free press as the cornerstone of American democracy that set America apart from regimes like the Soviet Union, with its state-controlled and censored media. On April 3, 1963, CBS aired The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson. Millions of viewers tuned in.
The following month, on May 15, 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee sent its report to President Kennedy, which he released to the American public. The nation’s top scientists validated Carson’s book. What she wrote about DDT was further supported by the National Cancer Institute, which noted that the sharp rise of cancer observed in America after World War II was directly related to the commercial use of chemical carcinogens that had entered our environment.
Rachel Carson became one of those victims. She died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964, at the age of 56. It started as a lump in her breast and spread throughout her body until finally killing her at the peak of her life. Her obituary said, “Miss Carson’s position, as a biologist, was simply that she was a natural scientist in search of truth and that the indiscriminate use of poisonous chemical sprays called for public awareness of what was going on.”
This awareness led government leaders to ban the use of DDT, and slowly, the American eagle made a comeback, and is flourishing today.
My mother was among millions of Americans who heard the news of another death when it first broke. CBS News reporter Walter Cronkite interrupted her soap opera with a special bulletin. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas!” he announced. I remember watching my mother collapse in grief.
Some, like his brother, who served as his Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, suspected a rightwing coup was behind the assassination, according to the Boston Globe. Lee Harvey Oswald’s demonstration of support for Fidel Castro in New Orleans a few months earlier seemed contrived, staged for the local TV news stations. Maybe he was set up as a “patsy,” as he decried to reporters just before he was killed by Jack Ruby, a strip club owner who came up in in the underworld of the Chicago mafia. The truth lies somewhere, buried.
Understanding injustice comes from our personal experiences and from the lessons we learn from history.
As Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department had obtained a federal court order to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963. His brother, President Kennedy, enforced the court’s order by deploying federal troops to escort two African American students past a defiant Governor George Wallace, who blocked the entrance into their classroom.
White privilege—a college education at a state university—was now accessible to African Americans in the Southern States.
Not since the Civil War had Americans been so deeply divided. The scabs of that conflict had been ripped wide open with the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, that brought an end to racial segregation of public schools.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” President Kennedy told the nation. “One hundred years of delay has passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons are not yet free. They are not yet free from the bonds of injustice.” President Kennedy announced his plan to introduce legislation to end voter suppression and racial discrimination.
But like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy became a martyr, killed by an assassin’s bullet. And the man who allegedly killed him, Lee Harvey Oswald—raised in New Orleans in the Deep South—was the 5th cousin of Robert E. Lee on his paternal branch of his family tree.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, a southerner from Texas, assumed the presidency. When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he invoked the memory of John Kennedy. Arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, was one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson carried 43 states in a historic landslide over Goldwater in the General Election. The six states Goldwater carried, aside from his home state of Arizona, were all in the Deep South.
After the Illinois Supreme court upheld the Christian County jury verdict, finding that the coal utility company, Central Illinois Public Service Company’s release of coal tar pollution had caused the outbreak of a rare childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, and awarded $3.2 million to the victims, I was one of six people nominated in 2001 for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s Community Champion Award. The year before, the award was given to Erin Brockovich, who was made famous by the movie bearing her name. Julia Roberts portrayed Brockovich, a paralegal who conducted the fact investigation for a small law firm Masry & Vititoe.
Brockovich’s boss, Edward L. Masry, filed a lawsuit against the utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), a company my dad briefly worked for when we lived in San Diego. Masry was a first generation American, born of parents who immigrated from Syria. Like the small firm I worked for, he was the David that took on Goliath. The plaintiffs alleged that PG&E had contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley, California by open-dumping 370 million gallons of hexavalent chromium, a genotoxic carcinogen, in the Mojave Desert.
That case settled, before it even saw the faces of a jury, for $133.6 million. Brockovich was rewarded for her persistence in conducting a thorough fact-finding investigation with a $2.5 million bonus.
The Community Champion Award was deservedly given to Jeffrey S. Wingard, a biochemist and former vice-president of research and development for Louisville-based tobacco company Brown & Williamson, in recognition of his decision to become a whistleblower in 1996 against the tobacco industry. Wingard cooperated with the class-action lawsuit filed by the Mississippi attorney general against Brown & Williamson and the other tobacco companies.
After collecting their fees and paying expenses, the attorney who single-handedly slung the shot that felled Goliath—CIPS--Tom Londrigan and his partner, Bud Potter, called me into Tom’s office and handed me a check for $3,000. He apologized that it wasn’t more. Years later, his secretary during the CIPS case, Donna Hodge, told me that Tom had waived his fee. I was not aware of that when he handed me the bonus.
I used the money to take my four boys on a road trip to Dallas, Texas, where we spent Year’s Eve, 2002. My youngest son was 9 years-old, and the oldest was 15. We stopped in Oklahoma City to visit the memorial for the victims of Timothy McVeigh. He was the white supremacist who drove a Ryder truck loaded with explosive ammonium nitrate in front of the Murrah Federal Building, parked it, and callously walked away, intolerant of the people who worked within. In the empty field where the building had stood, there are 168 empty chairs made of bronze to symbolize the lives lost. The children from the daycare who were killed by the blast were not victims of greed or political corruption, but a different type of cancer that infects the American body politic. Those who targeted the FBI and ATF that day were part of a Michigan militia. They were neo-Nazi, White Christian Identity Nationalists, sympathizers with the Ku Klux Klan.
In Dallas, we visited the School Book Depository, now a museum, where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly set up a sniper’s nest on the sixth floor, overlooking Dealey Plaza. This plaza would be where John F. Kennedy breathed his last breath. I wanted my children to learn from this raw, brutal history, lest we forget.
When we are gone from this earth, it is our children who will continue working to keep our legacy alive. The parents who lost their children to cancer had their legacy taken from them by corrupt politics and corporate greed.
Carol Londrigan died on March 29, 2016, at age 77. For ten years, her husband Tom watched over her, as her memory faded away from Alzheimer’s. They were married 52 years.
The last time I saw Tom had been many years ago. I was now living in Louisville, Kentucky, working on death penalty cases. I came back to Springfield to attend the Illinois Innocence Project’s annual dinner on April 14, 2018. It was the project I started at the University of Illinois at Springfield in 2001.
Sunday, after the banquet, I went to Lincoln’s Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was early in the morning as I took in the serenity of the rolling hills of grave-markers and the natural beauty of magnificent oak trees. The visit coincided with the same day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. I strolled among the graves, in awe of the obelisk, the tomb that holds the remains of Lincoln, his wife Mary, and three of their four sons, Edward, William, and Thomas The oldest son, Robert, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, once the estate of Robert E. Lee, that was seized by the federal government. This is where the remains of John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby are buried.
I then took a drive to meet an old friend, Taylor Pensoneau, who retired as the head of the Illinois Coal Association. Taylor invited me to hear a sermon he was giving that Sunday at the Island Grove United Methodist Church.
The chapel of the church was built before the Civil War. The church was located on Old Jacksonville Road, which Lincoln and Douglas both traveled when it was a horse trail. General Grant, and the soldiers he trained at the old state fairgrounds in Springfield, marched past the church on their journey to Quincy, where they boarded steamboats bound for Paducah, Kentucky.
Taylor and his wife Liz welcomed me into the sanctuary of their church and introduced me to the small congregation. Taylor’s sermon drew on the history of how the country had been divided against itself fifty years ago, in 1968. After church, I travelled back to Springfield.
Tom Londrigan was living in the house on Lake Springfield where he and Carol raised their four children. Margaret Casey was there to check in on Tom. Margaret had recently lost her husband, John Casey, an attorney of Irish descent who was one of Tom’s best friends. As couples, John and Margaret Casey spent many years together socializing with Tom and Carol Londrigan. Margaret had brought Tom a home-cooked meal for dinner. She was also helping Tom edit Tales of Tomas, a novel Tom wrote about an Irish sailor who explored the seas off Nova Scotia well before Christopher Columbus sailed to America.
At age 81, Tom’s short-term memory was not as clear as it once was, but his memory of the CIPS case was vivid when I visited more than two decades after the CIPS trial ended. It felt like old times being back by his side. Tom had become a father figure in my life during the many hours, days, months, and years we spent together working on the CIPS case.
I visited Tom more often that year, and during one of the trips, Margaret shared with me memories of her own father, Ralph Bradley. Raised on a small family farm in Anna, Illinois in Union County at the far southern tip of the state, Margaret’s father was the founder and first president of the Illinois Farm Union. He became a critic of farm policies, beginning with the Eisenhower administration, that benefitted large corporate farm operations through a corporate welfare system that threatened to drive small family farms into bankruptcy. She said her father would often deliver speeches telling his members, “Ask not what your country can do for farmers—ask what you can do for your country.”
Then known as Margaret Bradley, meeting President John F. Kennedy.
Margaret’s father was lobbying in Washington, D.C. when U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, from Illinois, introduced him to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. “He doesn’t know a thing about agriculture,” said Douglas.
Margaret granted permission to print excerpts of the oral history recorded by Sangamon State University Professor Cullom Davis before Ralph Bradley died. The following untold story is how John F. Kennedy came to deliver the most famous inaugural address ever delivered by an American president.
Bradley met Senator John F. Kennedy in his Capitol Hill office just before he announced his run for president.
Bradley recalls telling Kennedy, “There’s a bill before the House that’s quite important to us.”
“Well, you know Ralph, Massachusetts is not a farm producing state, as such. It’s not a big part of our economy. Most of our constituents buy grain instead of sell grain,” said Kennedy.
Bradley shot back, “Yes, that’s true. But you’ll never be president of Massachusetts.”
At about that time, Jacqueline Kennedy arrived.
Jackie announced, “Jack, come on. Get in the car. I’ve got the car right outside. Dinner’s on the table and you’re going to go home and eat.”
Jack replied, “Jacqueline, come here, I want you to meet somebody.”
She said, “That’s fine but we better go home and eat.”
Their home was known as Hickory Hill, a 5.6-acre estate in nearby McLean, Virginia, that later became the home of Bobby Kennedy and his wife Ethel.
Bradley recalled, “She was an impetuous little thing, cute as she could be.”
Jack introduced him, “This is Ralph Bradley.”
“Hi, Ralph. How are you?” she said. “Jack are you ready now? Let’s go.”
“No. Ralph and I are going back in my office and have about an hour’s visit,” said Jack.
“No. You’re not!” Jackie protested.
“And she beat us through the door and got in Jack’s chair and dared him to sit down. So, Jack just turned to another office, which he had a suite there of three or four offices, and he said, ‘Ralph, we’ll go in there. We’ll let Jackie sit in my chair for a while.’ So, she did. She waited very graciously and came in, as a matter of fact, and visited a little,” Bradley recalled.
Bradley spent the next two hours in Senator Kennedy’s office educating him on farm policy. After the meeting, Kennedy introduced Bradley to two of his key aides, Mike Feldman, and Ted Sorenson.
Kennedy turned to Feldman and Sorenson and announced, “Now Ralph tells me that we probably have been voting a little wrong on some of these farm bills, that he feels is wrong. I’m not sure what position we’ve been taking because I’ve been taking the advice from both of you. I do know on the price support bill when we voted last year on it I was severely criticized by the Democratic Party for voting with the Republicans on that bill.”
Kennedy admonished his aides, “I don’t want your recommendations on how I should vote on agricultural bills as it comes before the Senate until you have first checked with Ralph Bradley. I want him to be my unofficial consultant on agriculture,” said Kennedy. Ralph Bradley became a key advisor to Kennedy, heading his national campaign Farmers for Kennedy. When Kennedy campaigned in the Illinois Democratic Primary, it was Ralph Bradley who introduced Jack Kennedy to Illinois farmers in 1959 and persuaded them to support his candidacy over presidential contenders Hubert Humphrey and Adlai E. Stevenson II. Kennedy walloped them, and Lyndon Johnson, and Missouri’s Stuart Symington in the primary, taking 64.6 percent of the vote in the April 12, 1960 primary election.
After defeating Vice President Nixon, Kennedy borrowed that line of Bradley’s speech to farmers, and substituted the word “you” in place of “farmers” when he delivered the most famous line ever spoken during an inaugural address to the nation: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” It was said on January 20, 1961, after Kennedy placed his hand on the family Bible and Chief Justice Earl Warren administered the presidential oath of office.
Those were the days when America truly was a great nation. It was a Golden Age when our leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy were regarded as world statesmen .America climbed out of a debilitating economic depression in 1941 to become the “Arsenal of Democracy” that defeated fascism. The war effort united the American people across all lines—black and white, north and south, Christian and non-Christian.
"This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right. A wonderful read.”
FREE TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: The author will make a digital version available free of charge to any teacher or student who wants to use the story for classroom use. Those interested should send an email with the word EDUCATION in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org
To pre-order copies of the book go to: www.coaltarandneuroblastoma.com Release date scheduled for September 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clutter Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design
About The Author
Louisville Private investigator Bill Clutter started his career in Springfield, Illinois. By the time the lawsuit went to trial, seven children from Taylorville were diagnosed with neuroblastoma, four would die. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the families against CIPS. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that verdict in 2002. After Clutter narrowly lost the senate race, his investigation helped free three innocent men from death row and he went on to start in 2001 what is now the Illinois Innocence Project. He was credited, among others, by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn when Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011. He moved to Louisville in 2013 to continue work on capital cases and started a national organization called Investigating Innocence, which help free three people, David Camm, from Indiana; Curt Lovelace, a former state prosecutor from Illinois, who was team captain of the Fighting Illini football team that won the Citrus Bowl in 1990; and Rodney Lincoln from Missouri, who spent 36 years in prison.
HOW TO GET A COPY OF THE BOOK: The paperback edition will be released in time for Christmas 2020. Before the book is released to the public, the author will send a digital version of the book to those who make a tax-deductible donation of $25 or more to help Investigating Innocence free more people from prison. Go to www.InvestigatingInnocence.org