Hating Congress has always been an American pastime, whether fair or not. However, we’ve had our share of politicians who were deserving of the scorn. This list is of those politicians who were so abysmal, that they stand beneath the rest. These senators served to taint the institution with their presence, whether it be through corruption, personal immorality, extreme and arbitrary views, profound ineffectiveness, or bigotry.
- Pappy O’Daniel (1890-1969)
I’ve covered Pappy O’Daniel before…but here he is again! A successful flour salesman, Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel found his way to host a radio program to pitch his flour and had his own band for whom he wrote songs for. His fanbase grew, and they started calling for him to get into politics. “Pappy” was a master of self-promotion but was politically uninterested until his listeners began suggesting he run for governor. He eventually took their suggestions, believing running for governor would help him promote the sales of his flour. He ran in 1938 with the campaign slogan of “Pass the Biscuits, Pappy!” to the consternation of intellectuals in the state. Yet, O’Daniel won the Democratic primary with 51% of the vote, which was the only vote that mattered in Texas at the time. In office, he failed to achieve his objectives as governor, largely due to the Texas legislature rejecting his impractical programs, which included a $35 a month pension for every Texan over 65 without raising the taxes to pay for it. O’Daniel of course blamed the legislators and would win reelection in 1940 by condemning the press, the legislature, and “communistic labor leader racketeers” (Green). After longtime incumbent Senator Morris Sheppard died, he first picked Andrew Jackson Houston, the 87-year old last surviving son of Texas hero Sam Houston. The man was senile and died two months after his appointment. O’Daniel was elected to replace him in June 1941. There, “Pappy” would drift increasingly to the right, condemning the “communist-controlled New Deal” and coupled this with racism, calling for the “restoration of the supremacy of the white race” (Jillson). His views on race were not unusual for a politician from the South, but his complete ineffectiveness and his ignorance in basic governance were. His relations in the Senate were poor as well, with his colleagues opting to shun him. After the end of World War II, O’Daniel had moved to the right of even most of his Republican colleagues and by 1948 he polled at only 7% approval. Knowing his time was up, he did not run for reelection. O’Daniel attempted comebacks in the 1950s, ranting against school desegregation, but by this point he had been largely forgotten and gained no traction. However, this senator had one accomplishment under his belt that no one else in politics could ever claim: defeating Lyndon B. Johnson in an election.
- Sherman Minton (1890-1965)
FDR was a popular president, and his many supporters would go to great lengths to defend him. Some went a bit too far. Defeating a Republican incumbent in 1934, Indiana’s Sherman Minton proved a firm friend of the Roosevelt Administration, supporting many New Deal laws and backing some of its more controversial proposals, such as the infamous “court packing plan”, which, had it been enacted, would have expanded the Supreme Court from 9 to 15 justices. However, what was disconcerting was not his support of these laws, but his rationales for retention of these laws when the Supreme Court was striking down many of them. During his campaign he delivered a speech titled “You can’t eat the Constitution”, which advocated that the Constitution can be suspended in times of great human need (Dreyer). He thoroughly believed that the legislature should pass whatever is regarded as needed for the people regardless of what was written in the Constitution in a time of emergency. An intense partisan, Minton was a member of the Lobby Investigation Committee, which he used to investigate and intimidate FDR’s political opponents. He lost his 1940 reelection bid largely thanks to his vote in favor of a peacetime draft, but he found a future on the Supreme Court thanks to his friend, President Harry S. Truman. After minor controversy about his reputation as a New Dealer, Minton was easily confirmed in 1949. On the Supreme Court, he thought like he did as a senator: he proved almost always willing to uphold legislative action, and for this he is often regarded by Supreme Court scholars as one of its worst justices.
- Rufus Holman (1877-1959)
Before his election to the Senate in 1938, Holman seemed a promising figure. He had served as Oregon’s State Treasurer and had taken an active concern in the environment. However, he had also been an officer in the KKK and his time in the Senate didn’t suggest he’d changed his views. Holman stood out as a strong opponent of FDR’s foreign policy as well as an opponent of loosening immigration laws. He also developed a reputation as an anti-Semite, having praised Hitler on the floor of the Senate, claiming he had “broken the control of the international bankers and traders over…the common people of Germany” (Sachar, 479).
Holman’s intense xenophobia resulted in extreme actions, such as proposing a bill stopping all quota immigration, restricting non-immigrant visits to six months, and introducing a constitutional amendment prohibiting dual citizenship (Jewish Telegraphic Agency). Given his legislative history, it is no surprise that Holman was a staunch supporter of Japanese internment as well, but this made him no different than other politicians of west coast states of the time. By 1944, his views were unpopular, and the Republican voters chose liberal Wayne Morse in the primary over him. Holman never again sought elected office after this defeat.
- William Scott (1915-1997)
In 1972, the state of Virginia for the first time since Reconstruction, elected a Republican to represent the state in the Senate. As a Congressman, Scott had developed a very conservative reputation, which was part of his appeal in Virginia at the time. Unfortunately, he built up a different reputation in the Senate. He proved to be its least impressive member and gained a reputation for incompetence and bigotry. An example of his political acumen was when an obscure newspaper called ran an article on him declaring him the “dumbest Senator”. Made aware of this, what did Scott do? He held a press conference to deny it! An example of his bigotry was when he allegedly stated, “The only reason we need ZIP codes is because niggers can’t read” (Goldfield, 197). Getting low marks from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he wisely opted not to run for reelection in 1978.
- Coleman Blease (1868-1942)
This vulgar governor of South Carolina, who was racist and pro-lynching to the point that he once buried a finger of a lynched black man in the garden of the governor’s mansion, Blease eventually found his way to the Senate in 1924. For his campaign, he employed a nonsensical slogan of “Roll up yer sleeves and say what cha’ please; the man fer the office is Cole L. Blease” (Moore). As a senator, he carried no influence with his colleagues and continued to be most known for virulent racism. In 1928, he proposed an anti-miscegenation amendment to the Constitution, which went nowhere. In response to First Lady Lou Hoover inviting Jessie De Priest, the black wife of Illinois Congressman Oscar De Priest (R-Ill.) for tea, he read into the Congressional Record the 1901 poem “Niggers in the White House”. After protests from Republican Senators Walter Edge and Hiram Bingham, he withdrew the poem from the record, but only in the name of not offending Bingham (The Evening Tribune). In 1930, he was defeated for renomination in the Democratic primary by James F. Byrnes, who he had defeated in 1924.
- William Clark (1839-1925)
As a leading copper mining magnate and one of the wealthiest men in the nation, William Clark could purchase almost any luxury, so why not a Senate seat? After an initial loss in 1890, he decided to sweeten the pot for the state legislators in his 1899 bid. With his son, Clark bribed legislators on a massive scale. He was so obvious about it that he even had his agents deliver envelopes of money directly to them. The margin of Democrat Clark’s victory was secured by 11 Republican legislators who had received money under suspect circumstances. Worse yet, Clark admitted he destroyed all checks regarding campaign transactions. The Senate investigation and subsequent report on his campaign proved so damning that Clark resigned. However, a new legislature convened in 1901, with most members having received campaign contributions from him. Thus, Clark was elected to a full Senate term without incident. Mark Twain wrote of him, “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs” (Dedman). Apparently satisfied with his time as a senator, Clark did not pursue elected office again after one term. Despite his reputation as a corrupt robber baron, Clark County, Nevada, which has as its county seat Las Vegas, is named after him for the railroad he built there.
- William Lorimer (1861-1934)
Having worked his way from extreme poverty to great prosperity, Lorimer was an example of the American Dream come true. Through his extensive business and political connections, he was able to build a political machine in Chicago. Known as the “blond boss”, this Republican used his mastery of political campaigning and showmanship to be repeatedly elected to a normally Democratic district of Chicago. In 1909, he was elected to the Senate by the Illinois State Legislature. However, Lorimer was corrupt, and this corruption would catch up to him.
In 1910, the Chicago Tribune alleged that his election had been won by bribing four Democratic state legislators, just enough to put him over the top. Lorimer asked the Senate to investigate the charges, and the first investigation cleared him of the charges. However, not all were convinced. Senator Albert Beveridge (R-Ind.) found that the four legislators had testified under oath that they had been bribed, and received large sums of money afterwards despite their subsequent denials. A new investigation was launched in 1911 after public outrage over the result of the first one. This investigation discovered that over ten legislators had been bribed by Lorimer’s campaign. Lorimer and his defenders claimed that he had no knowledge of his campaign’s activities, but the Senate voted to invalidate his election. This corruption case was the final straw needed to pass the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators.
- Robert R. Reynolds (1884-1963)
Elected to the Senate from North Carolina as a Democrat in 1932 after running a populistic campaign deriding his primary opponent for his wealth, Robert Reynolds was initially a supporter of the New Deal. However, he would later prove to have substantive differences with FDR, especially on foreign policy. Reynolds was the only non-interventionist representing the state of North Carolina and went further than being merely war aversive. He regularly made speeches praising Italy and Germany on the floor of the Senate and in 1938, he stated, “Hitler and Mussolini have a date with destiny. It’s foolish to oppose them, so why not play ball with them” (Jeansonne, 35)? Reynolds associated himself with racists and anti-Semites, most notably the hatemongering conspiracy theorist Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith, who he regarded as a patriot. He also blamed Jews for their plight in Europe, asking rhetorically whether their situation would have come about if “they were good citizens…if they had not impoverished these lands, or if they had not conspired against their governments” (Sachar, 479). Unfortunately for Reynolds, Smith was not his worst association. In 1939, he accepted the vice chairmanship of a lobbying group called Make Europe Pay Its War Debts, which unbeknownst to him, was a Nazi front run by propagandist George Sylvester Viereck and the organization’s secretary-treasurer, Prescott Dennett, both paid agents. He aided the organization by introducing a joint resolution in the Senate to acquire British islands to pay the nation’s World War I debts. After the United States’ entry into World War II, Reynolds knew he was toast and chose not to run for reelection in 1944.
- Brock Adams (1927-2004)
Brock Adams had a long career in Washington, serving in the House from Washington from 1965 to 1977 and as Secretary of Transportation under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1979. This background made him quite qualified to be a senator, and he defeated Republican Slade Gorton for reelection in 1986. He was not a particularly impressive Senator regarding accomplishments, but what makes him stand out is that while publicly he stood as an advocate for women’s rights issues, he was exposed as a serial abuser of women. In 1988, Kari Tupper, a family friend, alleged that Adams had drugged and sexually molested her in 1987. Soon, at least eight more women came out about Adams’s behavior, which ranged from aggressive sexual harassment to drugging and rape, with at least one incident allegedly having occurred during his tenure as Secretary of Transportation. Their stories were backed up by associates, family members, and friends of the women who corroborated the circumstances. Their stories also were not of partisan motivation, as most of the accusers were politically active Democrats. His former secretary for over ten years stated that she would warn new female staff members about him and his female employees referred to his behavior towards women as “Brock’s problem” (Gilmore, Nalder, Pryne, & Boardman). Adams chose not to run for reelection in 1992.
- Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947)
Many of these terrible senators served one term or less, but not so with Bilbo. A lawyer by profession, he had had a long career in Mississippi politics including a controversial term as governor, which was filled with racism and corruption allegations. In 1934, he was elected to the Senate and proved a loyalist for FDR. He backed his New Deal programs and voted against killing his infamous “court-packing plan”. Bilbo was generally regarded as trouble for his extreme racial views, thus the Democrats placed him on what was considered the least important committee, the D.C. Committee. Bilbo advocated for disenfranchisement of blacks in all the United States and for deporting them to Liberia. Both views were considered extreme at the time, even in the South. Yet, before American involvement in World War II, Bilbo was often recruited as a stump speaker for other Democratic candidates across the country.
Bilbo’s attitudes would start to catch up with him during World War II. Since as a country we were fighting Nazis, more people began to connect the dots between what Hitler promoted and what Bilbo promoted. He didn’t confine his bigotry: he also wrote a letter back to an Italian American critic of his opposition to civil rights legislation with the opener, “My Dear Dago”, which he refused to apologize for after earning public criticism (LaGumina, 156). In 1946, Bilbo really did himself in when he admitted KKK membership, openly advocated voter intimidation, and implied that violence should be employed to prevent black GIs from voting. Actual violence followed these words against blacks who attempted to vote in Mississippi. He was reelected, but the newly convened Senate refused to seat him. In addition to charges of voter intimidation, evidence was presented that Bilbo accepted illegal gifts from construction firms that he had helped secure war contracts, including a new Cadillac, a swimming pool, a private roadway, and the excavation of a lake around his mansion. Bilbo, who was already ill with throat cancer, died in 1947 before the case on his seating could be concluded. In the Mississippi State Capitol his statue sits in a room frequently used by members of the legislature’s Black Caucus and some of them use its outstretched arm as a coat rack.
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