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Czar Of The House
When Speaker Reed set out to break “the tyranny of the minority,” he touched off an explosive battle. At stake was the effectiveness of the chamber itself
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause, He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
Secure in his self-made laws, Reed could not be flustered. Once a Democratic member, overruled by Reed on a point of order, remembered that the Speaker had taken a different position in his manual, Reed’s Rules . Hurriedly he sent for the book, leafed through its pages, pounced on the relevant passage and marched to the rostrum in anticipatory triumph to lay it before the Speaker. Reed read it attentively, cast a glance down at the man from his glowing hazel eyes and said with finality, “Oh, the book is wrong.”
In 1896, with Cleveland’s term a shambles, the Republican nomination for the Presidency was a prize worth having. Reed wanted it. In October, 1895, as reported by Theodore Roosevelt, he was in “excellent health and spirits and thinks the drift is his way.” Though not on speaking terms with Maine’s senators, Reed had the active support of Lodge and some other New Englanders in Congress besides the ardent devotion of Roosevelt outside it. “Oh Lord!” Roosevelt wrote after Reed had torn, trampled, and demolished free silver in a masterly speech, “what I would not give if you were our standard-bearer.” At times, however, he confessed to being “pretty impatient” with Reed, who would not satisfy Theodore’s insistence on support of a big navy. “Upon my word,” he complained to Lodge, “I do think that Reed ought to pay some heed to the wishes of you and myself.” It was a vain hope to express of a man who was not given to “heeding” anyone’s wishes. To Lodge’s annoyance he also refused “to promise offices from the Cabinet down or spend money to secure southern delegates.”
Another man was spending money liberally in that very effort. Mark Hanna had cast a President-maker’s eye on Reed in the previous campaign but had found him too sardonic, his oratory too eastern, and his personality hardly amenable. Since then Hanna had found his affinity in a man the antithesis of Reed, the amiable, smooth-speaking, solidly handsome McKinley, of whom it was said that his strongest conviction was a desire to be liked. He was an ideal candidate who had never made an enemy and whose views on the crucial currency question, as a biographer tactfully put it, “had never been so pronounced as to make him unpopular” either with the silver wing or the goldstandard group. Reed now had cause to regret that in naming McKinley Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee he had opened his path to prominence as sponsor of the tariff act. Since the Fifty-first Congress, when McKinley had ventured some objections to the Speaker’s methods in the matter of the quorum, Reed had had little use for him. He considered him spineless, an opinion to which Roosevelt gave immortal shape during the Spanish-American War when he said, “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
Hanna saw in McKinley less an éclair than a kind of Lohengrin and felt sure he could put over his hero as long as McKinley’s opponents did not unite behind anyone else. Though fearing Reed as the only candidate of genuine stature, Hanna shrewdly judged him too prickly a proposition for the others to attach themselves to. He was right. Senator Platt, for example, acknowledged that McKinley “is not a great man as Mr. Reed is,” but held his delegation for Governor Levi Morton of New York. Other eastern leaders, finding the Reed camp dry of inducements, pledged their votes to Senator Allison of Iowa. For Reed was not making it easy for would-be supporters. When a political chieftain from California asked for a promise of a place on the Supreme Court for a man from his state, Reed refused, saying the nomination was not worth considering unless it were free of any deals whatsoever. The California chieftain was soon to be seen basking in Hanna’s entourage. Reed could see the trend but he could not have changed himself. “Some men like to stand erect,” he once said, “and some men even after they are rich and in high place, like to crawl.” To reach even the highest place Reed could not crawl.
He was not sanguine and already, in a letter to Roosevelt before the convention met, talked of retiring to the private practice of law. “In a word, my dear boy, I am tired of this thing and want to be sure that my debts won’t have to be paid by a syndicate [a reference to McKinley’s]…Moreover the receding grapes seem to ooze with acid and the whole thing is a farce.”
At St. Louis in June he received 84 votes, and the grapes receded beyond reach. The loss was the harder to bear when he had to see the party’s choice descend upon McKinley. Republican victory in November, however, ensured his own return to the Speakership for a third term. It was to mark a new era for the United States and present Reed with a final test.