Czar Of The House


A body of rules had grown up “calculated better than anything else,” as a colleague said, “to obstruct legislation,” a body as full of “intricacies and secrets” as the armamentarium of a medieval cabalist. Reed mastered it. “In my opinion there never has been a more perfectly equipped leader in any parliamentary body at any period,” said a professional observer, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Reed not only knew parliamentary practice and law but “understood as few men do the theory and philosophy of the system.” Whether consciously or not, he was preparing for the time when as Speaker he would be able to impress upon the House a sense that no one on the floor could compete with the Chair in command of the rules.

With this alone he could not have imposed his authority if he had not also been “the finest, most effective debater,” in Lodge’s opinion, “that I have ever seen or heard.” He never used an extra word, never stumbled in his syntax, never spoke, even extemporaneously, in other than perfectly formed sentences. To listeners these seemed to fall from his lips “of their own accord”; in fact they were the product of a lifetime’s reading and a feeling for the rhythm of English prose that was natural in an admirer of Macaulay. Reed was instant in rejoinder, never at a loss, never forced to retreat or modify a position. He was terse, forcible, lucid. He could state a case unanswerably, illuminate an issue, destroy an argument, or expose a fallacy in fewer words than anyone else. His language was vivid and picturesque. “Hardly time to ripen a strawberry,” he said to describe a lapse of two months. His epigrams were famous. “All the wisdom in the world consists in shouting with the majority,” was one. Another was his reply when asked to define a statesman: “A statesman is a politician who is dead.” He rarely made a gesture when speaking. “When he stood up,” said Lodge, “waiting for an opponent to conclude, filling the narrow aisle, with his hands resting upon the desk, with every trace of expression banished from his face and looking as if he had not an idea and hardly heard what was being said, then he was most dangerous.” After one retort which left its victim limply speechless, Reed, looking about him sweetly, remarked, “Having embedded that fly in the liquid amber of my remarks, I will proceed.”

His lucidity and logic were particularly effective under the five-minute rule. “Russell,” he said to a representative from Massachusetts, “you do not understand the theory of five-minute debate. The object is to convey to the House either information or misinformation. You have consumed several periods of five minutes this afternoon without doing either.”

Reed made his point by narrating, not orating. Once when engaged in his favorite sport of baiting the adjoining chamber, for which he felt a profound disrespect, he described a presidential election fifty years in the future when by constitutional amendment the President would be selected from among and by the senators. “When the ballots had been collected and spread out, the Chief Justice who presided was observed to hesitate and those nearest could see by his pallor that something unexpected had happened. But with a strong effort he rose to his feet and through a megaphone, then recently invented by Edison, shouted to the vast multitude the astonishing result: 76 Senators had each received one vote.”

Discussing economic privilege during a tariff debate, he told how, when walking through the streets of New York and contrasting “the brownstone fronts of the rich merchants with the unrewarded virtue of the people on the sidewalk, my gorge rises…I do not feel kindly to the people inside. But when I feel that way I know what the feeling is. It is good honest highminded envy. When the gentlemen across the aisle have the same feeling they think it is political economy.”

When word ran down the corridors that Reed was on his feet, about to speak, gossiping groups dissolved, members hurried to their seats, boredom and inattention vanished as the House listened expectantly for the sculptured prose, the prick of sarcasm, and the flash of wit. Every member coveted the notoriety of debating with Reed, but he refused to be drawn by the “little fellows,” reserving himself only for those he considered worthy opponents.

After his first term, his nomination as representative L of Maine’s First District was never afterward contested. Elections were another matter, and he almost lost the one of 1880 when he refused to compromise or equivocate on free silver despite strong Greenback sentiment in Maine. He kept his seat on that occasion by only 109 votes. But as his fame grew he generally ran ahead of his ticket in the biennial elections. Even Democrats confessed to “voting for him on the sly.” “He suited the taste of New England,” said Senator Hoar of Massachusetts. “The people liked to hear him on public questions better than any other man not excepting Blaine or McKinley.” The reason was perhaps the same as that given by an Englishman to explain the secret of Palmerston’s popularity: “What the nation likes in Palmerston is his you-be-damnedness!”

Though Reed scorned fence-building and never encouraged familiarity with the public, among intellectual equals “no more agreeable companion ever lived.” In the small world that was then Washington’s elite he was a jovial and radiant personality, a poker player, storyteller, and sought-after dinner guest. At one dinner party when the conversation turned on gambling, another famous raconteur, Senator Choate of New York, remarked somewhat unctuously that he had never made a bet on a horse or card or anything else in his life. “I wish I could say that,” a fellow guest said earnestly. “Why caaan’t you?” asked Reed with his peculiar twang, “Choate did.”