Speaking Of Speakers

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It is not easy to be nonpartisan about a confrontational politician like Newt Gingrich, but I think it’s reasonably objective to say that he has elevated the job of Speaker of the House to a level of visibility that is rare in its two centuries of existence. That he was given free television time for a speech at the end of the first hundred days of the 104th Congress—as if he were the President—is itself remarkable. But it was only the climax of a post-election period during which the media seemed to reduce every day’s Washington news to no more than a new round in a slugfest between Gingrich and Clinton.

Heaven knows Gingrich has justified the attention. He positioned himself as leader of the opposition, and what is more, he kept a remarkably tight rein on his Republican House team, successfully driving it through votes on every point of his “contract with America” within his promised time limit. Such a combination of control and visibility is rare in Speakers of the House, thanks to the nature of the office. In each Congress the majority party chooses the Speaker, which usually means awarding the job to a veteran insider, skilled at engineering cloakroom compromises—some of them bipartisan—and most willing to leave speechmaking to others. A quintessential recent example was Tip O’Neill of the 95th through the 99th Congress (1977–87), a man hard to dislike and hard to remember as being identified with any specific cause.

It is exactly that required absence of loud self-righteousness that has kept the fifty-odd Speakers fairly deep in history’s shadows. Here’s a quick quiz. How many Speakers have gone on to become President of the United States? One and only one: James K. Polk, Speaker from 1835 to 1839, named as a dark horse in 1844 and serving for a single term.

Other Speakers have yearned for but failed to achieve elevation to the White House, most notoriously Henry Clay, who presided brilliantly over the House in the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 18th Congresses (between 1811 and 1825), and James G. Blaine, who led the 41st through the 43d (1869–75). A couple of Speakers have become Vice Presidents (Schuyler Colfax under Grant and John N. Garner, FDR’s first Vice President), but that was back in the days when anonymity was considered an asset for the number two position. On the whole, the pattern was set by the very first Speaker, Frederick A. Muhlenberg. He was a Pennsylvania clergyman, educated in Germany, a worthy citizen of his state, and one who left a light imprint on the national record.

Yet the Speaker’s job, if not always the Speaker himself, is important. Under current law he is third in line to succeed the President, and he can make the difference between stalled or productive lawmaking machinery. And there have been great Speakers who, forswearing other elective ambitions, have set out to accumulate power in Congress itself, deriving their satisfactions almost completely by using parliamentary powers to expedite—or assassinate—the initiatives of Presidents and presidential aspirants. These past potentates of the Hill, since they may be Gingrich’s truest models, are decidedly worth the attention of Newt watchers.

Take, for example, Maine’s Thomas Brackett Reed, who served as Speaker in the 51st (1889–91), 54th, and 55th (1895–99) Congresses. It’s a good place to begin since only then did the House change from a debating society to a body so large that it required a high degree of organization and scheduling to get its work done. That shift concentrated more power in the hands of a Speaker who controlled committee assignments and legislative-calendar priorities. Knowing and making the rules were the key to real clout, and Reed was adept at both. He was an imposing figure to begin with—tall, weighing well over two hundred pounds, with a massive head, likened by some to a cassava melon, rising from his shirt collar. He had a memorable wit whose stings fell on party friend and foe alike. Of two fellow representatives, he once declared that “they never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” He was also one of the few capable of putting down young Theodore Roosevelt. “If there is anything I admire about you, Theodore,” he once told him, “it is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.”

Reed’s defining moment came in January 1890. Minority Democrats had adopted a tactic of stalling the Republican legislative juggernaut by simply refusing to answer roll calls, so that business would halt for lack of a quorum. Reed, newly in the chair, calmly ordered the clerk to inscribe them as “present and refusing to vote” and therefore countable toward a quorum. Enraged Democrats tried to deny him a quorum by leaving the chamber. Reed ordered the doors locked and proceeded with the voting. Congressmen tried to hide under desks to avoid being counted, but in the end Reed forced through new rules that let him ignore dilatory motions and curtail nonessential debate. And while the affronted Democrats continued to denounce “Czar” Reed, they also continued his rules when they themselves became a majority.

In 1899 the Republicans urged the annexation of the Philippines, recently occupied in the war with Spain. Reed, a decided anti-imperialist, opposed the idea. Confronted with a clash between party duty and private conviction, he promptly quit both the Speakership and his seat in the House.