“the House Shall Chuse Their Speaker…”


Clay was a skillful leader who beguiled his audiences and his colleagues with charm, wit, and eloquence. It was said of him that he could take snuff more elegantly than any man of his time. When the British were marching on Washington, a proposal was offered that Congress go out to fight the enemy, but Clay stated that he would be sorry to lead such a disorderly body into battle. Once, on leaving a convivial party at dawn, he was asked how he could expect to preside over the House that day. “Come up,” he said, “and you will see how I throw the reins over their necks!” More than anyone else, he showed what effect a forceful, dynamic Speaker could have on the House of Representatives: he made it, in his time, the dominant branch of the federal government.

Bold and self-confident, Clay understood the office as essentially political, and as Speaker he took command of the House. He was the first great Speaker, the model for Speakers who came later. Never after his tenure would the office revert to the bland impartiality of Speaker Muhlenberg. Lesser men, many of them, succeeded to the Speakership in the decades after Clay, but it was he who permanently settled the nature of the job. Clay failed in only one ambition. “I would rather be right than be President,” he said, but his friends knew he would rather have been President. Curiously, only one Speaker of the House, James K. Polk, ever went on to become President.

Now, a century and a half after Clay left the office, the House can count few Speakers who could match his marvelous command of the place, who could rank with him as one of the greats of the House. There have been some: James G. Blaine of Maine, who restored clear-cut majority rule after decades of splinter-party chaos; John G. Carlisle of Kentucky, who devised a question—“For what purpose does the gentleman rise?”—that gave the Speaker control of the recognizing of members and with it control of the House’s agenda; Thomas B. Reed of Maine, who broke forever the ability of the minority to filibuster and thereby frustrate action by the majority.

A huge man physically, Reed had a caustic, cynical view of life and politics. He was careless in his manner and non-chalant in his parliamentary talents, and he concealed his ambitions behind a masklike face. He was a political original, the first Speaker called “Czar.”

Sardonic in his wit, glacial in his bearing, it was Reed who gave the House its definition of a statesman: “a successful politician who is dead.” (Henry Cabot Lodge asked Reed, “Why don’t you die and become a statesman?” Reed replied, “No, fame is the last infirmity of a noble mind.”) He scorned the opposition: “The right of the minority is to draw its salaries and its function is to make a quorum.” When he decided a question, he would inform the minority leaders: “Gentlemen, we have decided to perpetrate the following outrage.” Reed brought to fulfillment the power within the Speakership that Clay had first attempted. He controlled the place so thoroughly that he refused to discuss legislation at the White House: he settled such questions without the guidance or advice of the President.

As powerful as Reed was Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois- “Uncle Joe” to his colleagues. Reed ran the House alone; Cannon worked with a handful of trusted lieutenants, and, like Reed, he too was called “Czar.” Cannon, a peppery, partisan scrapper, a wizened sixty-seven years old when he was first elected Speaker, took great pride in his own commonness. “I am,” he boasted, “one of the great army of mediocrity which constitutes the majority.” He ruled the House with an iron grip, and he could laugh at his own notoriety. “Behold Mr. Cannon, the Beelzebub of Congress!” he once shouted at a crowd. “Gaze on this noble, manly form—me, Beelzebub—me, the Czar!”

Cannon was a genial fellow, personally popular with his colleagues, despite his tyrannical methods, but at last he brought on by those methods a great revolt within the House. It came in 1910, and the Speakership was stripped of the powers accumulated over the decades: the minority’s rights were carefully written into the House’s new rules.

For a decade and a half afterward, in the hands of Champ Clark of Missouri and then Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, the Speakership went into eclipse, with the real power in the House resting with the majority party’s floor leader. It was Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, floor leader under Speaker Gillett, who restored the real power to the chair when he was elected Speaker in 1925. A talented violinist, the son-in-law of President Theodore Roosevelt, Longworth could not become as powerful as Reed and Cannon had been; the rules now prevented that. He used other means, less harsh, to rebuild the Speaker’s flagging powers. One was the so-called “Board of Education,” a Capitol hideaway where he and his close friend, the leader of the opposition, John Nance Garner of Texas, poured drinks after hours in prohibition-ridden Washington. “Well, you get a couple of drinks in a young Congressman,” Garner explained, “and then you know what he knows and what he can do. We pay the tuition by supplying the liquor.” Garner succeeded Longworth as Speaker in 1931, and he continued the “Board of Education” in the old way.