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Speaking Of Speakers

June 2024
6min read

A look at the very small group of powerful and effective men who are Gingrich’s truest models

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.

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.

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