8 years in 'cross fire' of U.S. politics

"President David O. McKay said: `My mind is clear in the matter. If the opportunity comes in the proper spirit I think you should accept [the appointment as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture].' "

`Cross Fire' by Ezra Taft Benson

As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson spent eight years in what he called "the cross fire" of national politics. Serving from 1953 to 1961, he was one of only two Cabinet members who lasted both terms of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration.

Called to the Council of the Twelve in 1943, Elder Benson never entertained the idea of serving anywhere except in the Church. When asked by President-elect Eisenhower if he would accept a Cabinet post, Elder Benson forthrightly said, "I wonder about the wisdom of calling a clergyman, a Church official, to be a Cabinet member."

After conferring with President David O. McKay, Elder Benson accepted and became known nationally and internationally as Secretary Benson.

Taking his post, he found himself in the "hot seat" - advocating unpopular but later proven sound farm policies and programs.

In Cross Fire, a book he wrote about his Cabinet years, he declared, "In politics . . . it helps to have a hide like an elephant."

His critics were so vocal that another Cabinet officer once remarked, "Every night when I go to bed I thank God I'm not the Secretary of Agriculture."

Though the tide of public opinion often washed against him, time proved him a wise, competent Secretary, and one of the most popular who ever served.

Secretary Benson declared: "The supreme test of any government policy, agricultural or other, should be, `How will it affect the character, morale, and well-being of our people?' "

Standing firm in his beliefs, he won the farm vote in 1956 and again in 1960. As years passed, many critics became advocates.

His persuasion had power. An example of his ability to turn opponents into advocates was demonstrated in Texas in 1960. The Church News received a few years ago a letter from Kenneth Warnock, a member of the Church in Wichita Falls, Texas. He wrote:

"A renowned newscaster in our region of north Texas recently related an experience that he had in 1960. They were having a conference in Vernon, Texas, where the Secretary of Agriculture was coming to speak to the farmers of north Texas and southern Oklahoma, the first time that an event of this magnitude had ever taken place.

"The political affiliation of almost all of these people was opposite of the then-administration and there had been considerable criticism of the new policies and philosophies of the government. This newscaster told how news representatives and farm representatives from a wide area had gathered that day. He described the tense feelings that were obvious and the spirit of hostility that filled the room, almost as static electricity.

"He said that the meeting was an experience that he will never forget. After several hours discussion and explanation by Ezra Taft Benson, it was obvious that this large gathering of men was filled with a spirit of peace and appeasement. Tough questions had been answered with an incisive and persuasive response. As the meeting came to a close there was a sharp contrast from the feelings that had prevailed at the beginning.

"After the Secretary of Agriculture had left the room, the men who had filled its halls were left in a moment of reflection. One of the chief spokesmen quickly rose to his feet and declared quite loudly, `I may not have agreed with what that man was selling, but I am sure prepared to buy it.' "

Brother Warnock concluded: "Although they may not have recognized the full extent of his calling and responsibility, the mantle and spirit of Ezra Taft Benson had touched the hearts of those men."

When even his own party members complained he was a liability, Secretary Benson offered to resign from his post. President Eisenhower, responding to the Secretary's offer, declared: "If you quit, I'll quit."

Numerous newspaper and magazine articles, often reflecting the venom of his critics, frequently praised the Secretary. Several writers referred to him as an "impeccably honest and open man" who spoke what was on his mind. One reporter observed that no one ever need wonder what Secretary Benson really thought about something.

While Secretary Benson's policies were assailed, his character was admired. Numerous reporters picked up on the calmness, grace and courtesy with which he met his critics. He told one reporter who asked about his serenity: "It's easy to keep calm if you have inner security and peace of mind. . . . Personally, I don't feel any fears. I try to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they will."

Secretary Benson practiced "shirt-sleeve" diplomacy. He believed in going among the people - especially the farmers - to preach his policies and programs. Many photographs from his Cabinet years show him in plaid shirts and casual trousers. He was as much at home, and perhaps more so, sitting on porch steps with a group of Nebraska farmers as with fellow Cabinet members.

Secretary Benson brought a spiritual dimension to his office. In a letter to President Eisenhower, he wrote: "May I be so bold to suggest that each of our weekly Cabinet meetings be opened with a word of prayer. . . . I know that without God's help we cannot succeed. With His help we cannot fail." (Cross Fire, p. 59.)

Cabinet meetings thereafter were opened with prayer. Also, Secretary Benson opened meetings with his agricultural board with prayer.

On June 27, 1953, while visiting San Antonio, Texas, during a severe drought, Secretary Benson suggested to Gov. Alan Shivers "the wisdom of proclaiming a day of fasting and prayers for rain." On June 30, Gov. Shivers telephoned the Secretary to say San Antonio had more than two inches of rain. Someone sent him a newspaper clipping:

"Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson apparently has contacts that are literally out of this world. When Benson left San Antonio on Sunday he promised south Texas farmers and ranchers immediate drought aid. Less than 24 hours later it rained for the first time in months."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed