Leaders In Name Only: When the Leader is Not in Charge

No one disputes that the most powerful Republican in the Senate is Mitch McConnell, nor does anyone dispute that the most powerful House Republican is Speaker Paul Ryan. The same goes for their Democratic counterparts, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. However, the exercise of power has not always been so clear cut in politics. Sometimes it is exercised from behind-the-scenes or even just barely so, as it is an open secret as to who really runs the show. There are numerous examples from American politics, including:

Presumed Leader: Champ Clark, Speaker of the House, 1911-19. Actual Leader: Oscar Underwood.

Although a popular Democratic politician, Champ Clark (D-Mo.) did not exercise power anywhere close to his autocratic predecessor, Joe Cannon (R-Ill.). While still exercising some power, it was not what he had previously commanded within the party and he was overshadowed by Majority Leader Oscar Underwood (D-Ala.), who was also chair of the Ways and Means Committee (Hendrick, 414-415) from 1911 to 1915. This was partly thanks to the House revolt against Cannon’s leadership in 1910, which had stripped the Speaker of several powers, including the ability to simultaneously chair the Rules Committee.  This was also partly due to Underwood’s sheer legislative expertise, being the top expert bar none for tariff and tax policy in his party and quite possibly the House itself. Underwood, instead of Clark, led the House Democratic Party. His abilities were also recognized when he was elected to the Senate, as he would also serve that chamber’s Minority Leader from 1920 to 1927. His last name is also a basis for Frank Underwood in House of Cards.

Presumed Leader: Frederick Gillett, Speaker of the House, 1919-25. Actual Leader: James Mann.

Although an established and respected conservative politician, when the Republicans elected Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.) Speaker in 1919, he was not initially the expected pick. The Republican leader during Democratic control of the House from 1911-19 was James Mann of Illinois, a staunch partisan who did not shy from a fight and was even considered by some observers to the most powerful member of the House when Democrats were in control (Haines, 3). However, an expose was published about his close relations with Chicago meat packers. The resulting investigation found that he had received from them “a horse and occasionally choice cuts of beef” (Haines, 3). Yet, when Gillett assumed the Speakership, he wasn’t the real power. The real political power still lay with Mann, whose influence was exercised in the party conference’s steering committee and was aided by allies Majority Leader Franklin Mondell (R-Wyo.) as well as Appropriations Chair and former Speaker of the House Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) (Hershey, 311). This behind-the-scenes leadership persisted until Mann’s death in 1922. After that year’s election, Gillett had one of the toughest fights to be reelected Speaker, as a small group of progressive Republicans rebelled against his leadership, a scenario unlikely under Mann. Gillett would be promoted by the voters of Massachusetts to the Senate in 1924, with him being succeeded by Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio), who was de jure and de facto leader.

Presumed Leader: Henry T. Rainey, Speaker of the House, 1933-34. Actual Leader: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As the Speaker of the House who presided over the First 100 Days, one would think that Henry T. Rainey (D-Ill.) would be a more famous politician, but he is actually one of the least notable speakers. He is so because he gave away so much of the powers of Congress to the Roosevelt Administration. Bills were drafted by the White House or Executive Branch and sent to Congress. Rainey gets a special place on this list for abdicating traditional Congressional responsibilities to the Executive Branch, only acting as a rubber stamp for Roosevelt. As the political scientist E. Pendleton Herring wrote, the president had become a “prime minister” (Sundquist, 136). Thus, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not only lead the Executive Branch, he also led the House of Representatives.

Presumed Leader: Wallace White, Majority Leader, 1947-49. Actual Leader: Robert Taft.

Wallace White was a longtime politician, having served in the legislative branch since 1917. He had some legislative accomplishments, particularly as the House sponsor of the Radio Act of 1927, the first law to provide needed regulation of radio frequencies. After his election to the Senate in 1930, White would be for most of his time part of a Republican minority desperate to leave the political wilderness. He was initially on the path to party leadership as assistant to Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary, but for all intents and purposes there were stronger Republican leaders in the Senate, such as Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg. After McNary fell ill with a brain tumor in 1943 that would kill him the following year, White briefly assumed acting leadership, but Taft successfully managed to change the rules by making the leader position and chair of the Conference separate. Although he was the official party leader in the Senate, he had no sway over the Conference, where actual leadership decisions were being made by Taft and his allies. White was personally liked by all his colleagues but was also not a natural leader or public speaker, and was thus the perfect front man for the intellectual and seemingly aloof Taft. His dominance was so complete that “White openly deferred to Taft on all issues by looking back from his Senate seat twelve rows to Taft for signals that told White what to do” (Donaldson, 36).

Despite public appearance of being content, White was dissatisfied with his role. He did not want to be the official leader, but rather wanted to attend to duties as chair of the Interstate Commerce Committee and as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the 80th Congress. Taft was also aided in his control in this session with his followers holding chairmanships of major committees. White repeatedly requested to be relieved, but was denied time and time again. His part as figurehead was just too useful, and he was not forceful enough as a person to push back. White was, simply put, a natural workhorse who was forced into being a reluctant showhorse. Frail at the age of seventy, the stress resulted in a nervous breakdown which left him out of commission for three months. Upon his return, White lacked the mental energy to continue, and Sen. Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) effectively took over his duties on the floor of the Senate. He had had no plans of running for reelection and retired in 1949.

Today it seems unimaginable that anyone would hold a leadership position yet have someone else calling the shots for the position, but as I have shown there have been numerous occasions in which the leader is at best a bit less powerful than someone who is officially subordinate (Clark) or at worst a figurehead who calls none of the shots (White).


Donaldson, G.A. (1999). Truman defeats Dewey. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Haines, L. (May 1919). Your Government at Washington. The Searchlight.

Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=0i9JAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3

Hendrick, B.J. (1912). Oscar W. Underwood: A New Leader From the New South. McClure’s Magazine.

Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=jJJEAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA415&lpg=PA415

Hershey, M.R. (2014). Guide to U.S. political parties. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.

Wallace H. White: Powerless to his Party. U.S. Senate.

Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/People_Leaders_White.htm



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