- The Rebel in the Red Jeep: Ken Hechler's Life in West Virginia Politics by Carter Taylor Seaton
In her fascinating work, The Rebel in the Red Jeep, Carter Taylor Seaton recounts the life and times of Ken Hechler, former West Virginia congressman and secretary of state. Seaton begins her work by placing Hechler within the context of "great man" theory, which argues that specific people influenced [End Page 133] the course of history. Seaton recognizes that historians have largely discounted this theory, yet does argue that Hechler is a "great man" in the history of the country, even if specific events did influence the course of his career (1). The major themes of the biography are rebellion and the importance of personal politics throughout his career. Seaton approaches Hechler's life both chronologically and thematically, examining his early life chronologically, while dealing with his career in Congress issue by issue. This approach provides a logical cohesiveness to the biography.
In the chapters on Hechler's formative years, Seaton does an excellent job in connecting his upbringing and education to his future political style. Hechler's parents taught him lessons of responsibility and frugality, while also contributing to his low self-esteem, which only improved as he entered college and graduate school, ultimately earning a PhD from Columbia. It was also at Swarthmore, where Hechler attended as an undergraduate, that he became especially interested in politicians who put the public interest before personal gain. The lessons he learned from his upbringing and education clearly influenced the trajectory of his political career.
Seaton also does an excellent job in explaining how important Hechler's work in the Truman White House was to his future political career. Hechler served as a researcher and speech writer for Truman and took away the importance of personal politics from his time working for the president. This connection can be clearly seen in his various campaigns, but especially his first campaign for Congress in 1958. As a candidate who would not toe the party line, Hechler had to find a way to overcome the Democratic party machine and a popular Republican congressman in West Virginia. He did so through this form of personal politics learned during his service under President Truman, as especially shown by his efforts to connect with voters through his use of his personal vehicle, eventually a red jeep, as his campaign office, which allowed him to stay on the trail consistently. This effort to get to know the electorate paid off in his ultimate successful election to Congress. Seaton points out that Hechler was particularly successful in reaching voters who normally did not vote.
The two strongest aspects of the biography are the thematic second half of the book and the sources Seaton used in the book. Seaton does an outstanding job of approaching Hechler's career in Congress thematically by separating the chapters by issue. Throughout this section of the work, Seaton effectively uses Hechler's position on the different issues to illustrate both his progressive ideals and his willingness to be a maverick in Congress. The most effective chapter is the one on Civil Rights. Not only was Hechler supportive of Civil Rights legislation in Congress, he was also the only member of Congress to attend the Selma to Montgomery march in support of the Voting [End Page 134] Rights Act of 1965. Hechler's willingness to do what he felt was right, despite the political risks, was one key characteristic of his political career. Seaton also used excellent sources. She had unprecedented access to Hechler and his papers, and made good use of other archival resources, including collections at the Truman library. Although there are some concerns about the use of great-man theory in the work, Seaton has provided an excellent biography of one of West Virginia's most interesting and influential politicians. Anyone interested in the political history of West Virginia would benefit from reading this well-done biography.