Even in the days before measures like the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was possible for the blind to make their way in politics, albeit difficult. Two people who made it were Oklahoma Democrat Thomas Gore (1870-1949) and Minnesota Republican Thomas Schall (1878-1935). In spite of difference in party, both men had many things in common. They both had been blind as the result of accident: Thomas Gore had been blinded as a child as the result of two accidents, and Thomas Schall had been blinded as a young man as the result of getting an electric shock from a cigar lighter. They were both aided significantly by their devoted wives. Gore managed to be elected as one of Oklahoma’s first two Senators in 1907 and Schall managed to get elected to the House in 1914. Both men also started out as progressives.
Thomas Gore first ran for Congress as a Populist from Texas in 1898 and identified with the anti-war left during World War I. He had also been an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson and eagerly supported his domestic agenda, aimed at helping farmers. The married Gore faced a crisis in 1914 when his political opponents attempted to set him up. That year he was running for reelection, and a woman named Minnie Bond asked him to meet her in her hotel room to discuss a job for her husband. After the meeting, she claimed that Gore had “taken advantage of her” (Burke). After prosecutors refused to charge him, she filed a $50,000 suit, but the jury exonerated him. Thomas Schall, on the other hand, had sided with Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 GOP split and served a term as a member of the Progressive Party before returning to the Republican Party. Fortunately, Schall never had to deal with a such a scurrilous accusation. Neither man, however, seemed fond of going with the flow of their times. Gore’s independence cost him renomination in 1920 and Schall was unafraid to disagree with conservative political orthodoxy in the 1920s nor with liberal political upheaval in the 1930s. He was also, in spite of his condition, a crack shot. Both men also were conservatives by the time FDR was inaugurated. While perhaps not being FDR’s most conservative critic on the New Deal, Schall was one of its harshest, stating that he was “the first Communist president of the United States…acclaimed in the Communists Russian newspapers” (Michaels, 77). Perhaps he thought that being a fellow disabled person, he was free to unleash the most hostile of criticisms. Thomas Gore was likewise an opponent of the New Deal, and was disgusted by the idea of distributing welfare for the sake of gaining votes. He looked negatively upon those who would seek work relief, writing “The dole spoils the soul” (Patterson, 23). He was also one of Gore Vidal’s grandfathers.
Both men’s careers also did not survive FDR’s first term. Schall had narrowly pulled through in his 1930 reelection bid and was likely to face a tough challenge from left-wing Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson. But, tragedy befell both men. Schall and his aide were struck by a hit-and-run driver on December 19, 1935, with him dying three days later. In the same month, Olson was diagnosed with stomach cancer and succumbed to it the following year. Gore’s opposition to the New Deal was unaccompanied by control or influence over the state political machines, resulting in his losing renomination in 1936 given the New Deal’s popularity in Oklahoma. Perhaps Gore’s success in spite of blindness and his inability to literally see the problems of Oklahomans influenced his judgements on the New Deal. Schall was likely influenced by a personal animosity to Roosevelt as well as his ability to overcome obstacles in spite of his condition.
Brown, C. (19 November 2016). Thomas Schall overcame blindness to serve Minnesota in Congress. Star Tribune.
Burke, B. “Gore, Thomas Pryor”. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
Michaels, J. (2017). McCarthyism: The realities, delusions, and politics behind the 1950s red scare. New York, NY: Routledge.
Patterson, J.T. (1967). Congressional conservatism and the new deal: The growth of the conservative coalition in Congress, 1933-1939. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press.
Thomas Schall’s target practice.