Speaking Of Speakers

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Another autocratic Republican Speaker soon took his place. Joseph G. Cannon was the mirror opposite of Reed’s biting but well-mannered New Englander. He had served a rural Illinois district since Reconstruction days and became Speaker in 1903 at the age of sixty-seven. “Everything is all right out West and around Danville” was Cannon’s conviction; “the country don’t need any legislation.” Using his powers of appointment to the crucial Rules Committee, he derailed any and all progressive initiatives. Humorous, profane, ungrammatical, sporting a hayseed beard and a perpetually wellchewed cigar, Cannon was paradoxically popular with colleagues and reporters, who knew him as “Uncle Joe,” even while “Cannonism” became an increasingly vulnerable symbol of reactionary arrogance. Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1910, a coalition of Democratic and Republican Representatives, after an epic floor fight, rewrote the rules to strip Cannon of his authority. He remained in the House, however, except for one term, until 1923, when he retired after forty-six years, unbowed and still well liked.

Midway through the 1920s the Republicans chose another Speaker of un-Cannonish civility who was less a czar than a polished wooer. Nicholas Longworth, in the chair from 1925 to 1931, came from an honorable, old, and rich Cincinnati family, and made headlines when he married Theodore Roosevelt’s free-spirited daughter, Alice. Washington society in an otherwise bland Coolidge era knew Longworth as a sporting, cultivated, and generous host. He translated the goodwill thus generated into influence in the House, which he used to protect the interests of business as usual.

“If there is anything I admire about you, Theodore,” Reed told Roosevelt, “it is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.”

Then, from the storm wreckage of the Depression, there emerged the age of near-permanent Democratic House majorities and the longest-tenured Speaker in congressional history, Sam Rayburn. The Texas-bred Rayburn succeeded to the Speakership in the 76th Congress in 1940, having already served twenty-eight straight years as a representative, the last seven of them as a loyal New Dealer despite personal conservative leanings. He held the gavel through nine of the next eleven Congresses—the Republicans taking over the House only in 1946 and 1952—until he died at eighty-seven in 1961. He held it through the days of mobilization for World War II, when he managed to round up enough support to extend the one-year draft by a single vote, saving the Army from virtual dissolution four months before Pearl Harbor. He held it through the birth of the United Nations, the start of the Cold War, the creation of the national security state, the Fair Deal, and McCarthyism. He held it long enough to hear a President young enough to be his grandson ask for appropriations to put men on the moon.

Old enough to have cast his first presidential vote in 1904, “Mista Sam” was a well-liked bachelor whose whole life was sunk in his job and who won his battles by scratching backs instead of twisting arms. It was he who coined the aphorism “To get along, go along,” and he could win a vote with the simple statement “Do this for me. I won’t forget it.” He continued a tradition of setting aside a hideaway in the Capitol, known as the Board of Education, where he and the Vice President of the moment could entertain, evaluate, and coach senators and representatives over a few ounces of bourbon. Harry Truman was taking refreshment there on April 12, 1945, when he was called to the White House to learn that he was now President.

Oddly, the irredeemably Democratic Rayburn was superb at keeping the House functioning effectively during the Eisenhower Presidency. It was not easy, requiring deft footwork to reconcile urban liberal Democrats, change-resistant Southern Democrats entrenched by seniority, and Republican moderates. But Rayburn was equal to the job. Like Cannon, he lived to a ripe old age and is memorialized in the name of one of the House Office Buildings.

He did not, however, live to see the professionalized but uncontrollable Congress of the 1970s and 1980s emerge. In a time of large staffs, long incumbency, heavy lobbying, and party independence, the skills required to keep the House in order may be of a different kind from those in which Rayburn was schooled. For the moment Speaker Gingrich seems to be in possession of them. Whether they will lead him in the footsteps of other great Speakers or to other destinations is an interesting question.