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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
For Reed the savor of life in the political arena departed. The country was headed now toward fullscale adventure in the Philippines, for which he felt deep distrust and disgust. He refused to join in celebrating Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila, and it was no secret in Washington’s inner circles that he came close to “despising” the administration. To mention expansionism to him, said a well-informed journalist, was like “touching a match” and brought forth “sulphurous language.” Reed could not stem but only snipe at the tide. One day when the newspapers were full of American exploits in the Philippines he chided a colleague for being at his desk. “I should think you would be celebrating. I see by the papers that the American Army has captured the infant son of Aguinaldo and at last accounts was in hot pursuit of the mother.”
“Reed is terribly bitter,” Lodge wrote to Roosevelt, “saying all sorts of ugly things about the administration and its policy in private talks, so that I keep out of his way for I am fond of him and confess that his attitude is painful and disappointing to me beyond words.”
Following the off-year election of 1898 Reed could have gone on to another term as Speaker, but already he could see signs of growing feeling in the House that he was too hostile to the administration to continue as its principal lieutenant. Joe Cannon and others of his old associates were antagonized by his attitude and his remarks about the President, but none dared attempt a contest to unseat him. The President lacked the nerve to come out openly in support of anyone else. Reed knew he could hold his command, but it would be a term at bay against a pack snarling at his feet. He became “moody and ugly” in these days and curt to old colleagues whom he saw deserting him.
Hawaii had not resolved his problem. If he retained office as Speaker his duty would be to carry the administration’s program through the House against his private convictions. To stand by his convictions meant opposing the will of the majority. This time there was only one way out. To his long-time friend and secretary, Asher Hinds, he said, “I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience and I cannot now do this thing.” In April, 1899, after the close of the Fifty-fifth Congress, he startled the political world with the announcement that he would not be a candidate for re-election as Speaker and shortly afterwards, to cap the sensation, announced he would not run again for Congress. It was revealed that after a vacation in Europe he would enter the private practice of law in New York as he had planned long ago. Political commentators spoke with awe of the gaping hole in the House that would be left by the retirement of “the most forceful personality who ever appeared in Congress.” It was a “calamity,” said the New York Times , which had always opposed him. Reed’s departure left a sudden sobering sense that the standard of statesmanship was being lowered. E. L. Godkin, the terribletempered editor of the New York Evening Post , mourned the passing from political life of that rare phenomenon, “a mature, rational man.” Joe Cannon, Reed’s successor as Speaker, said of him, not then but long afterward, “His was the strongest intellect crossed on the best courage of any man in public life that I have ever known.”
Reed himself offered no explanation of his going. Cornered by reporters who urged that the public would like to hear from him, he replied, “The public! I have no interest in the public,” and turned on his heel and walked away. To his constituents of Maine’s First District, however, he explained in a farewell letter, “Office as a ‘ribbon to stick in your coat’ is worth nobody’s consideration.”
He left the House of his own will, uncompromising to the end, a lonely specimen of an uncommon kind, the Independent Man.