The Court Packing Episode

The History of FDR's Failed Court-Packing Plan | History | Smithsonian  Magazine

Recently, President Joe Biden, possibly hoping to throw a bone to the radical left who have proposed trying “court packing” again for the Supreme Court without following through on what he knows is a bad idea, has initiated through executive order a commission to study the subject of court packing. The time they will examine easily the most will be Roosevelt’s 1937 proposal to pack the court and how that went down. I’m surprised I haven’t done a full post on FDR’s infamous “court packing plan” even though I have brought it up multiple times. It almost feels like I fully covered it, but I haven’t done an official post on it. This is the official “court packing” post of this blog. I shall tell you how the court-packing plan came to be and why it failed.

Our immediate story begins with the Great Depression and the election of that epic game-changer himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt had ambitious ideas on the new direction the United States would take in the process of recovering. An overwhelmingly Democratic Congress rapidly passed sweeping legislation within the first 100 days of the administration to address the nation’s ills, including the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, and rendering null and void all gold clauses in contracts. However, things didn’t go so swimmingly due to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the time was at the tail-end of the so-called “Lochner Era” and was struggling with a doctrine known as “liberty of contract”.  

On March 1, 1897, the Supreme Court delivered a decision in Allgeyer & Co. v. Louisiana, unanimously employing a doctrine that would be commonly used by the court for the next forty years, that being “liberty of contract”. The Supreme Court had for the first time found that the state had exceeded its police powers in violating an individual’s “right to contract”. The name Lochner comes from the most infamous case from the era, Lochner v. New York (1905), a controversial 5-4 ruling which struck down a New York state law limiting working hours for bakers and produced one of the court’s most famous dissents from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who argued the court was not bound by lassiez-faire doctrine. There is wide agreement among contemporary legal scholars that this case was wrongfully decided. The notion of “liberty of contract” would be used to overturn progressive laws on numerous occasions, but the court would also sometimes uphold them, finding them not to be in excess of police powers.

The New Deal suffered numerous defeats in the Supreme Court, including a unanimous one on the National Industrial Recovery Act in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935) as exceeding commerce clause powers, a 6-3 defeat on the Agricultural Adjustment Act in Butler v. United States (1936) as the processing tax was found unconstitutional, a 5-4 one on the Bituminous Coal Act as exceeding commerce clause powers in Carter v. Carter Coal Co. (1936), and another unanimous one for the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act in Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford (1935) as a taking of private property without just compensation. The Supreme Court also came within one vote of ruling the Roosevelt Administration’s gold policies unconstitutional in the Gold Clause Cases, which had this happened, Roosevelt was prepared to defy the Supreme Court like no president had since Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Indian Removal Act. According to researcher Theresa A. Niedziela (1976), in nine of sixteen key cases before the Supreme Court on the New Deal, the Supreme Court had struck down the laws.

However, the beginning of the end had already come for “liberty of contract” before the announcement of the court packing plan. In 1934, the court ruled in Nebbia v. New York that there was no absolute right to liberty of contract, and Justice Owen Roberts, known as a court moderate, wrote in the majority opinion, “neither property rights nor contract rights are absolute”. The decision was 5-4, with dissent from the “Four Horsemen” (Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, Van Devanter), or the wing of the court that was wedded to a more absolute interpretation of liberty of contract and a narrow interpretation of the commerce clause. The “Three Musketeers” (Brandeis, Cardozo, and Stone) by contrast, were inclined to uphold New Deal legislation and had broad views of commerce clause power as well as a broad view on what circumstances liberty of contract could be infringed.  

1937: Spending Political Capital

In the 1936 election, President Roosevelt won reelection in a landslide, with only Maine and Vermont dissenting on the course of the nation. The House had elected less than 100 Republicans and the Senate less than 20. He had political capital in spades and intended to use it to consolidate even more power. On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt proposed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, or more commonly known by the name New Deal critic Edward Rumely coined, the “court-packing plan”. This measure would have expanded the Supreme Court to fifteen justices, or an additional justice for every justice over 70. Roosevelt justified the plan in a radio address on March 9th, “This plan of mine is not attacking of the court; it seeks to restore the court to its rightful and historic place in our system of constitutional government and to have it resume its high task of building anew on the Constitution ‘a system of living law.’ The court itself can best undo what the court has done” (National Constitution Center). He also made the case based on the justices being old and needing younger justices to ease their workload. While it is true that the Supreme Court has had a history of justices growing too infirm to perform their functions and refusing to leave the bench, the court in 1937 had no such members, and one of the most pro-Roosevelt justices, Louis Brandeis, was at the time of the announcement of the court packing plan eighty years old. Although the proposal was not unconstitutional as the court’s composition had been changed before, the fear was a corruption of separation of powers. Roosevelt had succeeded in getting Majority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas to agree to support the bill, and he in turn as an effective, if autocratic and sometimes even fiery leader, had secured the support of many Democratic senators through personal promises. There were, however, Democrats who did not care for this direction, and one of them was Carter Glass of Virginia. Glass, a man who had once been more on the progressive side of things, was now a conservative who had been one of the earliest detractors from the New Deal and he went on the radio to speak against this plan. He was an institution in Virginia, so he was politically invulnerable to any efforts Roosevelt might otherwise pursue against him. Glass believed at the time that his efforts were doomed, but Roosevelt and supporters were already facing complications, including some significant defections.

In the Senate, Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, who had been Robert La Follette’s running mate on the 1924 Progressive Party ticket, had been the first major Democratic figure to oppose the plan. This was a bad sign as he had previously supported the New Deal in most respects (he dissented on cutting veterans benefits to pay for the New Deal), had objected to Supreme Court rulings against the New Deal, and had even sponsored a major New Deal law, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. Wheeler feared that this compromising of the separation of powers would eventually result in an executive dictatorship. In June 1937, the Senate Judiciary Committee delivered a devastating blow to the plan with its scathing report. One of the key lines in the report was, “The bill is an invasion of judicial power such as has never before been attempted in this country….It is essential to the continuance of our constitutional democracy that the judiciary be completely independent of both the executive and legislative branches of the government”, and the report concluded, “It is a measure which should be so emphatically rejected that its parallel will never again be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America” (National Constitution Center). If Biden’s commission does not account for this report in their report, they have not done proper research on the subject.

In the House, Judiciary Committee chair Hatton W. Sumners of Texas was also refusing to get on board with the plan, even though he had backed a lot of New Deal proposals in the past and was personally angered by some of the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down New Deal legislation. The truth was that part of Roosevelt’s problems with justices was self-inflicted. Judicial pensions had been cut by the Economy Act of 1933, which he had promoted and signed, and provided a motivation for two justices among the Four Horsemen (Sutherland, Van Devanter) to stay longer, as they were uneasy about their retirement situation. Sumners thus engineered the passage in the House of substitute legislation that would grant justices retirement at full pay to incentivize them to retire instead of court-packing, approved on a vote of 316-75 on February 10, 1937. The Republicans chose to remain silent as their strategy against court-packing, to not allow the issue to appear partisan. What’s more, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was able to deliver compelling counterarguments to the court packing plan in a letter addressed to Senator Wheeler and signed by Justice Louis Brandeis, disputing that the court needed additional justice to function. Perhaps the bill still had a chance of passage despite these setbacks, but there were two events that placed the final nail in the coffin.

On July 13, 1937, Judiciary chair Sumners announced that the “court packing bill” would remain bottled up in his committee even if the Senate passed it, and stated that “As soon as we take the lash from the heads of these judges over there, some of them will retire. I mean that as a fact. Everybody knows it is a fact. What is the excuse, then, for this bill being pressed any further? To save my life, I cannot figure it out” (Champagne, 48). The other event involved Majority Leader Robinson, who had been under a great deal of stress pushing the court-packing plan (he had been promised a seat on the court should he succeed) and he was becoming overworked. He continued to work long hours despite his physician’s advice against and on July 14, 1937, he was found dead by his housekeeper, having suffered a heart attack at the age of 64. His death allowed numerous Democratic senators to shift course, as they didn’t feel they owed allegiance postmortem. Only a week later, the Senate voted down the court packing plan 70-20, and even some of the administration’s most loyal Senate supporters went with the majority. Although Roosevelt tried to retaliate against those senators who had been most vocal in their opposition to the court packing plan as well as his reorganization plan, the 1938 primaries were a failure to this end and never again did he try to influence Democratic primaries.

The loss on court-packing proved that FDR wasn’t politically invulnerable, as did the 1938 midterms, which produced enough Republican victories to form the Conservative Coalition, an alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats to limit the New Deal and stop further expansions. Despite losing the court-packing battle and the political setbacks he faced, FDR won the war on changing the Supreme Court. Even before the announcement of the court packing plan, the justices had heard an argument in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937), which was on the constitutionality of Washington’s minimum wage law, and on March 29th they ruled 5-4 that such a law fell within the police powers of the state and was a permissible restriction of liberty of contract. Justice Roberts’ vote to uphold gave rise to the myth of the “switch in time that saved nine”, that his “switch” saved the court from being packed. The truth is that this would be consistent with his opinion in Nebbia on liberty of contract three years earlier and historical evidence indicates that Roberts had voted to uphold the minimum wage law and thus overturn Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923), which held that federal minimum wage legislation for women in D.C. was unconstitutional as a violation of liberty of contract, on December 19, 1936, two days after hearing oral arguments (McKenna, 2002). However, this doesn’t mean that politics didn’t play a role for the court. Roosevelt’s overwhelming reelection undoubtedly influenced the course of the court. Indeed, Chief Justice Hughes and Justice Roberts were motivated to vote more frequently to uphold New Deal laws (Devins). The retirement of Justice Willis Van Devanter in May 1937 given the passage of Sumners’ retirement bill with his replacement being New Dealer Hugo Black was also a victory for Roosevelt.

It turned out the court packing plan wasn’t needed, just Roosevelt staying in office. By 1942 only two justices remained who he hadn’t nominated: Harlan Fiske Stone and Owen Roberts, who were now on the conservative wing of the court. A narrow reading of “liberty of contract” died with Parrish and even with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, it looks like such an interpretation will remain that way. Interpretations of the commerce clause, however, may meet with more limits. The truth is if left-wing Democrats wish for a shift in the Supreme Court, the public will have to elect a Democratic president and a solid Democratic Senate majority. That, and not Roosevelt’s court packing scheme, was what was crucial to shifting the court. He in truth had won the war with the judiciary on November 3, 1936, the day of his landslide reelection. In such divided times, however, getting such a mandate seems unlikely unless one of the parties manages to pull off a train wreck for an election year.


A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935)

Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578 (1897)

Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238 (1936)

Champagne, A. (1988). Hatton Sumners and the 1937 Court-Packing Plan. East Texas Historical Journal, 26(1).

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Devins, N. (1996). Government Lawyers and the New Deal. William & Mary Law School.

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Feldman, N. (2020, October 1). FDR, even at his pinnacle of power, could not ‘pack the court’. Bloomberg Opinion.

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Leuchtenburg, W. (2005). When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed With the Supreme Court – and Lost. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905)

Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, 295 U.S. 555 (1935)

McKenna, M.C. (2002). Franklin Roosevelt and the great Constitutional war: The court-packing crisis of 1937. New York, NY: Fordham University.

Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502 (1934)

Niedziela, T.A. (1976) Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Supreme Court. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 6(4), 51-57.

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To Pass H.R. 2518 (P.A. 10), A Bill Providing for the Retirement of Justices of the Supreme Court. Govtrack.

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To Recommit to the Committee on the Judicial Branch of Government. S. 1392, A Bill to Reorganize the Judiciary Branch. Govtrack.

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United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1 (1936)

West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937)

RIP Walter F. Mondale: An Important Vice President and Pillar of Minnesota Democratic Politics

The position of vice president is often one that is derided and mocked for its lack of institutional power. The nation’s first vice president, John Adams, once said of the post that it was “…the most insignificant office that invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived” (Fuller). FDR’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, was more crass about it. According to his biographer, former Congressman O.C. Fisher of Texas, he stated that it wasn’t worth a “warm bucket of piss”, which was cleaned up by the press of the time as “a bucket of warm spit” (Hill). Despite this, there have been a few vice presidents who never became president yet proved significant in their offices. Among these were Garret Hobart (McKinley’s first), Henry Wallace (FDR’s second), Dick Cheney, and Walter Frederick “Fritz” Mondale (1928-2021).

Fritz Mondale (he went by “Fritz”) stands with Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy as giants in the rise of the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party to power in Minnesota. A prominent and politically active attorney, Governor Orville Freeman appointed him attorney general in 1960, with him being elected to a full term in 1962. Political opportunities opened quickly for the young Mondale, and in 1964 he was appointed by Governor Karl Rolvaag to the Senate to succeed Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected vice president.

Senator Mondale

 As senator, he was a strong supporter of the Great Society and civil rights and took the lead on advocating fair housing legislation. Mondale was also a strong supporter of federal funding of the arts, which had a personal element as his wife, Joan, was herself an artist, known affectionately as “Joan of Art”. He was elected to a full term in 1966 in what was a good year for Republicans. In 1968, Mondale was critical in working out a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) to include fair housing in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. 

In the 1970s, Mondale led pushes for universal daycare and successfully worked with Sen. James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) in 1975 to reduce the requirement to end a filibuster from 2/3’s of senators to 3/5’s. He was very strong in his liberalism: his MC-Index score is a 1%. In 1976, Jimmy Carter picked Mondale as VP to balance out the ticket, as Carter was from the Deep South and thought of as in the moderate camp of the Democratic Party while Mondale represented the staunch liberals of the North. The Carter/Mondale ticket prevailed.

A Game Changing Vice President

Although Jimmy Carter is widely thought of as a weak president, Walter Mondale by contrast is thought of as one of the strongest vice presidents in American history. Rather than be an outside figure like many other VPs, Mondale actively participated in the presidency and held regular meetings with Carter. Mondale’s chief of staff, Richard Moe, noted that “He had unprecedented access to the president” (Hunt). He repeatedly pushed Carter more to the left, including urging him to keep up social spending and persuading him to support affirmative action in university admissions. Mondale also warned Carter against delivering the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, telling him, “You can’t castigate the American people, or they will turn you off once and for all” (Hayward). This speech would be more commonly known as the “Malaise speech”, delivered on July 15, 1979, which criticized the American people for a “crisis of confidence” as well as their lifestyles as overconsumption. While Carter got a lot of positive mail and a bump in popularity after the speech initially, criticism of the speech grew within days, with Carter’s critics holding that he was deflecting blame to the American people for his own policy failures (Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy would call it the “malaise speech”) and that he was engaging in blatant hypocrisy. Indeed, when Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had critiqued American materialism and a spiritual crisis in the West in his 1978 Harvard commencement address, the First Lady criticized the speech, which was widely understood as the unofficial response of the Carter Administration. Worse yet, two days after delivering the speech, Carter asked for resignation letters from all his cabinet officers to review which ones he would accept. Mondale turned out to be right, and this marked the beginning of the end of the Carter presidency as the malaise narrative stuck throughout the 1980 election. After Carter’s defeat that year, Mondale would be de facto head of the party.

Mondale for President

Mondale saw 1984 as his time to run for the Democratic nomination for president. His most formidable rival was Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who was ambitious in promoting new ideas for the Democratic Party and gaining a lot of attention among younger voters. However, Mondale was able to effectively attack his ideas as shallow in the primary debates, asking Hart, “Where’s the beef?”, based on a popular Wendy’s commercial of the time (Gannon). Hart’s campaign had suffered a mortal blow and Mondale won the nomination.

In 1984, Mondale was nominated to run for president against Ronald Reagan. He again made history when he selected Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate, but this history-making choice was marred by questions over Ferraro’s record on ethics in the House as well as questions surrounding her husband’s finances and business connections. Although Reagan stumbled in his first debate performance against Mondale, he came back in spades in the second performance. When asked about his age, Reagan successfully deflected, “…I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience”, getting the laughter of the audience and of Mondale himself (Glass). Mondale reflected on the debate afterwards in an interview with Jim Lehrer, “If TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you’ll see that I was smiling. But I think if you come in close, you’ll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think. [I told my wife] the campaign was over, and it was” (PBS). He had also blundered earlier on the campaign when he stated at the Democratic National Convention, “By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds. Let’s tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did” (CNN). The combination of a personally popular president, Mondale’s staunchly liberal platform of a nuclear freeze, support for the Equal Rights Amendment, tax increases with expansions of social programs, and a rapidly recovering economy produced one of the greatest electoral landslides in American history. Mondale only barely won his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. He subsequently reflected on his loss, “Reagan was promising them ‘morning in America,’ and I was promising a root canal” (U.S. Senate).

In 1993, Mondale was tapped by President Clinton as Ambassador to Japan, a post he served in until 1996. Six years later, he was quickly drafted to run for the Senate once again after the death of Paul Wellstone in a plane crash on October 25, 2002 but was narrowly defeated by Saint Paul Mayor Norm Coleman in an upset. Had Mondale had more time to campaign, it seems likely he would have won. After this loss, he retired from politics for good. He suffered two losses in his retirement, the passing of his daughter Eleanor in 2011 from brain cancer and the passing of his wife in 2014 from Alzheimer’s disease. Mondale announced his support for Amy Klobuchar in the Democratic primary for the 2020 election and endorsed Joe Biden after he was nominated.

On April 18th, 2021, death was imminent for Mondale, so he wrote a final farewell to all who had worked for him in the past:

“Dear Team,
Well my time has come. I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor. Before I Go I wanted to let you know how much you mean to me. Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side!
Together we have accomplished so much and I know you will keep up the good fight.
Joe in the White House certainly helps.
I always knew it would be okay if I arrived some place and was greeted by one of you!
My best to all of you!
Fritz” (DeMarche)

Mondale died in his sleep the next day.


1984: There You Go Again…Again: Debating Our Destiny Transcript. PBS.

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DeMarche, E. (2021, April 19). Mondale pens touching letter to team prior to his death. Fox News.

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Fuller, J. (2014, October 3). Here are a bunch of awful things vice presidents have said about being No. 2.  The Washington Post.

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Gannon, F. (2005, August). Where’s the beef? EMBO Reports, 6(8).

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Glass, A. (2018, October 21). Reagan recovers in second debate, Oct. 21, 1984. Politico.

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Hayward, S.F. (2009, July 20). Make Mine Malaise. The Washington Times.

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Hill, R. (2014, October 12). Cactus Jack: John Nance Garner of Texas. Knoxville Focus.

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Hunt, A. (2021, April 20). Walter Mondale was our first consequential vice president. The Hill.

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Mondale’s Acceptance Speech, 1984. CNN.

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Smith, T. (1979, July 18). Carter Offered Resignations By Cabinet and Senior Staff; Some Going in Days, Aides Say. The New York Times.

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Walter F. Mondale, 42nd Vice President (1977-1981). U.S. Senate.

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The First Friend: Paul Laxalt of Nevada

OBITUARY: Sen. Paul Laxalt Dies at 96

On February 24, 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was fresh off a doubtful election victory marked by violence and fraud and had a country in protest over him. He was barricaded in the capitol and called Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, asking “Senator what should I do?” and he responded, “I think you should cut, and cut cleanly. I think the time has come” (Ahern). Marcos resigned not long after. You see, Paul Laxalt (1922-2018) wasn’t just some senator: he was President Ronald Reagan’s best friend in Washington and thus could be said to speak for the president, and Marcos knew this.  Although Pat McCarran was the most influential Nevada senator of the 20th century, I would say that Laxalt was a close second.

Laxalt’s political career began in 1950 when he successfully ran for district attorney of Ormsby County, Nevada, serving until 1954. In 1962, he ran for Lieutenant Governor on the ticket with Lieutenant Governor Rex Bell for governor. However, Bell died of a heart attack while making a speech on the Fourth of July. Laxalt was urged to run in Bell’s place, but he chose to remain the nominee for lieutenant governor. Although the substitute nominee, Oran K. Gragson, was trounced on Election Day, Laxalt won his race by over 9,000 votes against former Congressman Berkeley Bunker. Through his television ads, he became known and liked throughout Nevada. In 1964, Laxalt attempted a run for the Senate, challenging first-term incumbent Howard Cannon. Although his campaign urged against him appearing with Barry Goldwater in Las Vegas, Laxalt considered him a friend and “political Godfather” and wouldn’t refrain from meeting him, saying that he would rather lose than decline. On Election Day, he believed that he would lose, and although he did, it was only by 48 votes in a controversial election result. Laxalt remained lieutenant governor and ran for governor in 1966 on the platform that Nevada should instead of resisting the FBI on the influence of the mob in casinos that they should cooperate. He also sought to distance his campaign from members of the John Birch Society. 1966 was a good year for the Republicans and Laxalt defeated Sawyer by nearly 6,000 votes. During his time as governor, he pushed corporate ownership of casinos and allowed Howard Hughes to buy multiple casinos without having to attend hearings, starting the corporate takeover of gambling in Nevada. He also befriended California Governor Ronald Reagan, also elected in 1966, and the two collaborated in conserving the Lake Tahoe region. Under Laxalt, Nevada got its first community colleges and its first medical school. Although he was popular and could have easily won reelection, he declined another term and left office in 1971.

In 1974, Laxalt was convinced to get back into politics and run for the Senate again. This time, he faced as his opponent future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Yet again, this Senate race occurred in a difficult year for the GOP, and Reid was ahead in the polls, but he made a late mistake in the campaign by criticizing the finances of the Laxalt family. Paul Laxalt was able to bring out his sister Sue, a nun who had taken a vow of poverty, to the campaign. This mistake and Laxalt’s capitalizing on it cost Reid the election, and he prevailed by 642 votes. Laxalt proved an active senator from the start and was playing leading roles in pushing conservative causes. In 1975, he started a committee boosting Ronald Reagan for president against incumbent Gerald Ford. Laxalt reflected on that time, “I was almost by myself, it was a lonely scene” (Peterson). Indeed, few prominent people backed Reagan in that early stage. He would be joined by two more senators in support during the campaign, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Richard Schweiker (R-Penn.), the former who was crucial in keeping Reagan’s campaign alive through his North Carolina primary win. Although Reagan failed in 1976, Laxalt was once again at the forefront of promoting him for president in 1979, which would ultimately start Reagan’s successful campaign for president. In 1978, he took the lead on opposing the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty. His leadership was praised by both sides of the question in the debate and ultimately the treaty prevailed on April 18th 68-32.

Upon the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, Laxalt became the “First Friend”, and served as an unofficial liaison between the Senate and the White House. They were close to the extent that Laxalt could be said to speak for the Reagan Administration. He backed key initiatives and proposals of the Reagan Administration, such as his economic program of cutting taxes in 1981 as well as partially rolling them back in 1982. This support included some of the administration’s more controversial stances, such as opposing sanctions on South Africa in 1986. In 1983, President Reagan wanted him to be chair of the Republican National Committee, but this was legally impossible, so an arrangement was set that Laxalt would be “general chair”, while Frank Fahrenkopf, also a Nevadan, would be “national chair”. He would be in this position until 1987.  

In 1985, Laxalt announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection for personal reasons despite the efforts of many Republicans to persuade him otherwise. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 93%. Harry Reid won the 1986 election against former Democratic Congressman Jim Santini by over five points. Laxalt stayed in Washington to continue to assist President Reagan in an unofficial capacity. In April 1987, he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. However, although Laxalt was a personal friend of Reagan, questions dogged him about his connections in Nevada to mob figures despite his moving the state in the direction of corporate-owned rather than mob-owned casinos. Enthusiasm for his bid was not particularly strong and by late August he dropped out, finding himself unable to attract sufficient donations to compete in a crowded primary as well as against higher-profile candidates like Vice President George H.W. Bush, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, and even Representative Jack Kemp of New York, the latter whom had spearheaded the Reagan tax cuts.

Laxalt subsequently practiced law and formed a consulting firm, The Paul Laxalt Group. His grandson, Adam Laxalt, served as Nevada’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019 and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018. Laxalt died on August 6, 2018, four days after his 96th birthday.


Ahern, T. (1986, February 25). “Cut And Cut Cleanly,” Laxalt Advises Marcos In Dramatic Call. The Associated Press.

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Peterson, B. (1979, March 8). Reagan-for-President Committee Is Formed, But He Hasn’t Announced Candidacy – Yet. The Washington Post.

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Ralston, J. (2018, August 12). Paul Laxalt: The man, the myth, the legend. The Nevada Independent.

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Tretreault, S. (2018, August 6). Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor, senator, dies at 96. Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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The Sagebrush Rebellion: A Western Backlash to Environmentalism and Jimmy Carter

The first Sagebrush Rebellion: what sparked it and how it ended — High  Country News – Know the West

In the 1970s, the environmental movement was gaining great sway. Congress had easily agreed to the Clean Air Act Amendments as well as the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, and it was under President Nixon that the Environmental Protection Agency was established. These were not, at the time, particularly partisan measures. However, an increased push to conserve land under federal ownership was underway, and this, combined with other policies, would alienate the West politically.

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which officially shifted the goal of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from being permissive in allowing landowners and ranchers to extract from land to conservation. In truth, however, this act just made official what had been going on for years and had really began with the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, with significant limitations being placed on grazing by the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974, the National Resources Defense Council prevailed in a lawsuit against the Secretary of the Interior after arguing that public lands were overgrazed, and thus environmental impact statements on grazing are needed (Library of Congress). All these developments may not have been such a problem had the election results been different in 1976. President Jimmy Carter and the West never seemed to get on…in that election he lost every Western state to Ford.

The Carter Administration’s policies rubbed many Westerners the wrong way as they seemed to often work to the region’s detriment. As Jonathan Thompson (2016) notes, “To the rebels, President Jimmy Carter was an especially onerous landlord. On the one hand he tried to cut off funding to a slate of federal water projects pending throughout the West (thus depriving the region of its lifeblood), and on the other wanted to turn large portions of the region into an MX missile launching pad (cutting off other access to that land and making us a target for the Soviet Union). While Lamm wouldn’t exactly count himself as a Sagebrush Rebel, he also revolted against the federal landlord when Carter and Congress implemented an $88 billion synfuels subsidy program that led to water-guzzling, destructive oil shale development in the Interior West.”

The Sagebrush Rebellion attracted many in the West, especially ranchers, mine-owners, and politicians. Senators Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) were the most notable supporters, as they were, with prominent uranium miner and San Juan County, Utah Commissioner Cal Black, leaders of League for the Advancement of States Equal Rights (LASER). LASER and other rebels wanted more say in the use of western lands and some wanted return of control of these lands from the feds to the states. In 1979, the movement had its first political success when the Nevada State Legislature passed the “Sagebrush Rebellion Act”, which declared public lands in Nevada to be the property of the state and held that federal ownership of 86% of the state was unconstitutional. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming the next year passed their own Sagebrush bills. California and Washington did so as well but the former was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown and the latter was subsequently voted down by the voters. Undersecretary of the Interior James Joseph expressed the view of the Carter Administration on the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1979, “The old interests which have for so long dictated public land policies have lost control. Many of you have been saying for years that more than stockmen have a stake in how the public lands are grazed; more than miners have a right to suggest how, when and where mining will be done on the public lands; more than loggers care – and may rightfully comment on how our timber resources are managed. There is nothing particularly mysterious, I now believe, in what is being called the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” Indeed, it is the time-honored response of the fellow who upon finding he can no longer dictate the rules of the game decided to take his ball and go home” (Nelson, 30). The Carter Administration was aiming to change the game on how the West was viewed in the name of accommodating other interests, including some newer residents of the West more interested in environmentalism and recreation, but these policies were working against the interests of more than just the powers-that-were. Democratic Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado, not a Sagebrush Rebel himself, stated on the matter, “with regard to public lands, and issues related to public lands, the Carter administration was a western nightmare” (Nelson, 30).  In 1980, the Sagebrush rebels attracted a powerful ally…indeed their most powerful yet: Ronald Reagan.  

During Reagan’s campaign, he stated, “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel” (Bump). However, in terms of practical policy, the Sagebrush rebels came up short. Proposals to transfer federal lands back to the states proved unfeasible per the results of studies commissioned by Governors Scott Matheson (D-Utah) and Richard Lamm (D-Colo.). These found that the states would take on net annual financial burdens if they indeed got what they wished with the Sagebrush bills. Of the thirteen western states, only New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming would gain in revenue if all land was transferred, and only North Dakota would slightly gain if it was surface only and not resources as well. There were many, however, who sought a way between the Carter Administration’s approach and those who wanted all the lands transferred to the states. One of these people was James G. Watt.

After Reagan was elected president, he nominated and got confirmed Watt as Interior Secretary. He, like many others, thought of the Sagebrush Rebellion as a protest movement against federal land-management policies, especially under the Carter Administration, rather than possessing a set of concrete policy proposals. Watt held on the Sagebrush Rebellion, “I do not think that [transfer of federal lands to states] is needed. That is not the first order of priority, certainly. What we must do is defuse the Sagebrush Rebellion. The Sagebrush Rebellion has been caused by an arrogant attitude by the Department of Interior land managers, who have refused to consult and include in their decision-making process State and Local governments and land users” (Nelson, 33). Ultimately, it was the policies of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, which were accommodating to western states by transferring hundreds of thousands of acres from the federal government to the states and made the department more receptive to the concerns of the West, that proved satisfactory to most Sagebrush rebels. Environmentalists had a different take on Watt, seeing him as one of the most anti-environment cabinet officers in modern political history for his pro-development policies and his restrained use of the Endangered Species Act.

Governor Richard Lamm, not on friendly terms with Carter on the West, had this to say about the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1982, “(The) Sagebrush (Rebellion) comes into relief as what it really is — a murky fusion of idealism and greed that may not be heroic, nor righteous, nor even intelligent. Only one certainty exists — that Sagebrush is a revolt against federal authority, and that its taproot grows deep in the century’s history. Beyond this, it is incoherent. Part hypocrisy, part demagoguery, partly the honest anger of honest people, it is a movement of confusion and hysteria and terrifyingly destructive potential. What it is no one fully understands. What it will do no one can tell” (Thompson). A lot of the Sagebrush Rebellion, in truth, can be attributed to the Carter Administration’s policies on land use in the West, which were a hodgepodge of policies that worked to environmentalism, national defense, and could even be harmful to the environment (synfuels). All, however, worked to the detriment of the West, from those who were established and wealthy to those who were not, as the Carter Administration’s policies served to limit economic growth in these regions.


Bump, P. (2016, January 4). That time Ronald Reagan joined a ‘rebellion’ – but still couldn’t change federal land laws. The Washington Post.

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Nelson, R.H. (1984). Why the Sagebrush Revolt Burned Out. AEI Journal on Government and Society, 8(3).

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The Sagebrush Rebellion, 1960-1982. Library of Congress.

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Thompson, J. (2016, January 14). The first Sagebrush Rebellion: what sparked it and how it ended. High Country News.

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Earl Landgrebe: Nixon’s Last Republican Defender

In 1968, Republican politician Charles Halleck of Indiana, who had battled New Deal liberalism since taking office in 1935 and had led the House GOP from 1959 to 1965, chose to retire. In his place, Earl Landgrebe (1916-1986), a state legislator and the head of Landgrebe Motor Transport, was elected to Congress. While Halleck was willing to compromise for Republican presidents and on foreign aid, Landgrebe was ultra-conservative and seldom budged for Nixon when he wanted to go left, including on the Family Assistance Plan, which would have provided guaranteed minimum income for working families. His MC-Index lifetime score stands at a whopping 99% and his DW-Nominate score stands as 0.793, only being outdone in his conservatism by that scale during his time in Congress by H.R. Gross of Iowa, John G. Schmitz of California, and Durward G. Hall of Missouri. Americans for Constitutional Action also found Landgrebe quite conservative, with him having a lifetime score of 95%. His record on civil rights was negative, with the only proposal he ever backed being the Nixon Administration’s Philadelphia Plan in 1969. The Equal Rights Amendment, strengthening the Civil Rights Act of 1964, funding the Civil Rights Commission, and strengthening the Jury Selection Act of 1968 all met with his disapproval. Landgrebe was also the only member of Congress to oppose a cancer research appropriations bill, citing cost as well as stating that curing cancer would only alter “which way you’re going to go” (Pearson). He also was, strangely enough, arrested in Moscow in 1972 during an official visit to the USSR for distributing Bibles. That year, he was one of only seven representatives to vote against the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty and this was consistent with his staunchly hawkish record on the Vietnam War, seeking an end with total victory for the United States. Landgrebe faced criticism for insufficiently supporting President Nixon and him being the only Indiana Republican representative to fail to join the Indiana Committee for the Re-Election of the President. Landgrebe had greater difficulty winning reelection than his predecessor given his unique brand of ultra-conservatism and in 1972 Indiana House Majority Leader Richard Boehning challenged him, albeit unsuccessfully, in the Republican primary. Landgrebe, however, was quick to embrace certain Nixon initiatives, including détente and his visit to China. Despite criticisms from other Republicans that he was insufficiently loyal to Nixon, Landgrebe would after Nixon’s reelection prove himself to be loyal like none other in the Republican Party.

On February 6th, 1974, he was one of only four Republican representatives to vote against an impeachment inquiry into President Nixon. This vote was not at the time a litmus test on whether impeachment was supported or opposed, but he refused to even consider moving forward. After the release of the Watergate tapes, Landgrebe refused to listen to them or read the transcripts and stated “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind. I will not vote for impeachment. I’m going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot” (Pearson). It turned out this was unnecessary given Nixon’s resignation, but such a refusal gained him his 15 minutes of fame in American political history.

On August 20th, Landgrebe was one of only three representatives to vote against approving the report recommending that Congress impeach President Nixon, the other two strangely enough were Democrats: Otto Passman of Louisiana and Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi. Both were staunch supporters of Nixon, with the former going as far as to state, “I contend that Richard M. Nixon is the greatest President this country ever had. Rather than take any chance of doing anything offensive to this great man, I decided to vote ‘no’”, while Landgrebe himself obstinately refused to agree with the report or to praise the Judiciary Committee for their work (Rosenbaum). It is hard to imagine in this day and age, or indeed any day and age, a politician from the opposing party of a president forced into resignation praising said president as the greatest.

In 1974, rather than being taken out and shot, he lost reelection along with four other Indiana Republicans, only receiving 39% of the vote against Purdue University history professor Floyd Fithian. By contrast, in 1972 Landgrebe had defeated him by over nine points. The last time a Democrat had won the district was in 1932. In one of his last votes, he voted against the confirmation of Nelson Rockefeller, a bête noire for conservative activists, as Gerald Ford’s vice president, citing his “extreme liberalism” (Journal and Courier).

In a 1979 interview, Landgrebe justified his position on Nixon, stating “he had not committed a treasonable offense” and stuck to this position for the remainder of his life (The Star Press). On February 13, 1980, he confronted strikers from the Machinists Union while making deliveries to the Union Rolls Corporation. While he succeeded in making deliveries twice, the third time his truck was surrounded, with strikers shouting obscenities and taunts, battering his truck, and breaking the side window, showering Landgrebe with broken glass. The incident was broken up a local sheriff. He died of a heart attack on July 1, 1986, aged 70. Former President Nixon, having appreciated his last-stand support, publicly praised him and sent a representative to his funeral. Landgrebe stands as one of the stranger figures in American political history, a man who succeeded a political leader to office and was not afraid to take lonely stances, only to lose the district for the GOP in six years based at least partly on his outspoken refusal to face facts.


Ex-Hoosier Congressman Dies. (1986, July 1). The Star Press.

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Knebl, C. (1986, July 2). Nixon praises Landgrebe for ‘support and counsel’. Vidette-Messenger of Porter County.

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Landgrebe Motor Transport, Inc., and Earl F. Landgrebe, plaintiffs-appellants, v. District 72, International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, AFL-CIO, and Local 1227, International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, defendants-appellees, 763 F. 2d 241 (7th Cir. 1985).

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Landgrebe votes ‘no’ for Rocky. (1974, December 21). Journal and Courier.

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Pearson, R. (1986, July 1). Obituaries. The Washington Post.

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Rosenbaum, D.E. (1974, August 21). House Formally Concludes Inquiry Into Impeachment. The New York Times.

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Schumpert, L. (1972, April 1). Why Won’t He Speak for Nixon? Journal and Courier, Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana.

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To Agree to H. Res. 1333, Authorizing the Printing of the Report Recommending That The House Exercise Its Constitutional Power to Impeach Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States. Govtrack.

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“When You’re Out of Schmitz, You’re Out of Gear!”: Orange County’s Outrageously Offensive Congressman

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Imagine if you will, a man is elected to Congress who openly spites the president who is a member of his party and a resident of his district, a man who is kicked out of the John Birch Society, a man whose primary point of contention with his also conservative opponent is on the subject of birth control, a man who makes his predecessor James B. Utt look moderate by comparison, and a man who sees fit to run for president after little more than a term in Congress. What you have, ladies and gentlemen, is the one and only John G. Schmitz (1930-2001).

Schmitz’s foray into politcs began during his time in the Marines, when as a lieutenant colonel he was teaching a course on communism. One night in 1962 he witnessed a woman being attacked with a knife on the side of the road and with the sheer command of his voice he disarmed the attacker. Although the woman died of her wounds, Schmitz was regarded as a hero and conservatives in Orange County were keen to recruit him to run for public office. In 1964, he won election to the state Senate representing the county. During this time, Schmitz was certainly the most right-wing figure in the California Senate. A prominent member of the John Birch Society, he claimed the Watts riots were a communist operation and spoke against the Mulford Gun Control Bill, which prohibited open carry and was at the time a consensus measure from both the right and left and had the endorsement of the National Rifle Association as well as the approval of Governor Ronald Reagan. To him, Reagan’s approval constituted a betrayal for conservatives. This placed Schmitz in the same camp as the Black Panthers, the group at which the legislation was aimed. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed!

On March 1, 1970, Congressman Utt, who I have covered before, keeled over from a heart attack and who else but State Senator Schmitz was the candidate to succeed him? Schmitz, campaigning with the slogan, “When You’re Out of Schmitz, You’re Out of Gear!”, based on a Schlitz beer commercial of the time, won the election and proceeded to be among the most conservative members of Congress, supporting Nixon when he supported conservatism. Both his lifetime ACA and MC-Index scores are a whopping 99%. He wrote the introduction to Gary Allen’s and Larry Abraham’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1971), which alleges that there is a global world order conspiring to accomplish communism in many different countries with policies such as an income tax, a central bank, and explode the national debt through deficit spending. Like Schmitz, Allen and Abraham were prominent members of the John Birch Society. He became notorious for his offensive and at times hilarious remarks, which are at the bottom of this post. However, one remark that offended his most famous constituent was, “I have no objection to President Nixon going to China, I just object to his coming back” (Cannon). Nixon, who was between the moderate to liberal Republicans and the conservatives, was pissed, and he recruited Orange County assessor Andrew J. Hinshaw to defeat him for renomination. Hinshaw was successful, but unlike Schmitz he turned out to be a crook and would be sentenced to prison in 1976 for accepting bribes as assessor.

Presidential Bid

Having been defeated for renomination, he stood in place of George Wallace for the American Independent Party nomination after he had been shot and paralyzed from the waist down by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer. Although he was not the only Republican to challenge Nixon for president as Congressmen John Ashbrook of Ohio and Pete McCloskey of California ran for the Republican nomination from his right and left respectively, neither chose to challenge him in the general election. Schmitz got over a million votes, having his best performance in Idaho. He was not done with politics, however, and in 1978 he was again elected to the California Senate.

Feud with Gloria Allred and Downfall

Schmitz, who as a Catholic was staunchly pro-life, in 1981 held hearings on abortion, in which feminist attorney Gloria Allred testified for the pro-choice position and subsequently presented him with a chastity belt. Schmitz’s committee subsequently issued a press release written by aide Brad Evans under instructions from Schmitz to “blast Allred” with the following headline, “Senator Schmitz and His Committee Survive Attack of the Bulldykes”, in which his opponents were described as having “hard, Jewish and (arguably) female faces” and referred to Allred as a “slick, butch lawyeress” (Deutsch). The press release also denounced opposition witnesses as “imported lesbians from anti-male and pro-abortion queer groups in San Francisco and other centers of decadence” (Deutsch). Allred sued Schmitz for defamation and the case was settled for $20,000 and a public apology. This incident cost him both his committee chairmanship and his membership in the John Birch Society.

In 1982, Schmitz was invited by Yasser Arafat to meet in Beirut, because according to him “I used the word Jewish in a non-adulatory manner”, which he accepted and agreed to act as his messenger in the US (Macdonald). He subsequently held a press conference outlining Arafat’s peace plan, which was timed to happen during Passover. Allred was present and placed a box of frogs before Schmitz, shouting, “A plague on the house of Schmitz!” (Macdonald). That year he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for the Senate, with Arafat at his side. However, Schmitz’s political career came to a catastrophic end that year, when it was exposed that he had fathered two children with Carla Stuckle, who had been a student of his when he was teaching political science at Santa Ana College. He refused to support the children. Schmitz had repeatedly stressed family values during his career and had proven a massive hypocrite, and that was just too much for early 1980s Orange County. Never again did he run for office, and by the 1990s he was running a trinkets stand in Washington D.C.

In that decade, his daughter, Mary Kay Letourneau, was charged with statutory rape for having a relationship with a 13-year old student. Although Schmitz tried to defend her with an archaic argument from Blackstone’s dictionary about statutory rape being only a crime that men can commit, she was convicted in 1997. He spent his last years living at a Virginia winery his children had bought him. On January 10, 2001, Schmitz died of prostate cancer at 70. He also may have been a Holocaust denier if his tribute from Mark Weber of The Journal for Historical Review, the publishing arm of the Institute For Historical Review is accurate. Weber stated he was a friend of the group, helped them secure a venue, was a subscriber, and attended two conferences. IHR was founded in 1978 by notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite Willis Carto as a pseudo-academic group to spread Holocaust denial. One can only speculate how Schmitz would have done on Twitter had he lived into the era of social media, but there’s one guarantee: it would be a wild ride!

The Quotable Schmitz, most of these quotes are from Coker (2001):

“I may not be Hispanic, but I’m close. I’m Catholic with a mustache.”

“I would have voted for a three-tier system – have one school that the blacks could go to, one school that all the whites could go to, and those who want to mix go to a third school.”

“A good military coup might be the best we could hope for if President Reagan’s policies are not successful. A lot of people can’t imagine anything like that happening in our country. These same people could never imagine themselves stealing to stay alive.”

“Hello, all you commies. I want to deny the rumors that I have been attending candidates’ school in Chile or Argentina.”

“I ought to get the Right to Life man-of-the-year award for this.” – In response to revelations about fathering illegitimate children.

“Jews are like everybody else, only more so.”

“I wished to identify with the moderate wing of the Republican Party in Orange County.” – On joining the John Birch Society.

“I didn’t know we were supposed to come in uniform” (Cannon). – In response to seeing two conservatives in brown suits at an Orange County conservative meeting.

“I lost the presidency by a mere 44 million votes.”

“Martin Luther King is a notorious liar.”

“Basically, an honest man who just didn’t realize the immensity of what he was up against. In a way, I’m sympathetic to him despite his mistakes because he was so easily caricatured, and I’ve seen myself caricatured. And if I were a more important figure, I’d be caricatured in history books, too.” – On Joseph McCarthy.


Cannon, C.M. (2021, February 19). Great American Stories: John G. Schmitz’s Quote. RealClearPublicAffairs.

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Coker, M. (2001, January 18). John G. Schmitz, In His Own Words. OC Weekly.

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Deutsch, L. (1986, August 22). Feminist Wins Apology From Ex-Legislator Over ‘Butch’ Comment. Associated Press.

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Emery, D. Did the NRA Support a 1967 ‘Open Carry’ Ban in California? Snopes.

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Macdonald, K. (1982, April 9). Schmitz, Plagued by Frogs, Recites Arafat Peace Plan. The Washington Post.

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Weber, M. (2001). John Schmitz, RIP. The Journal of Historical Review, 19(6).

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The Long Road to Abolishing the Poll Tax

poll tax | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica

Universal ballot access for adult citizens in the United States has for much of its history not been a reality. At the very founding of the nation, you had to own real estate to qualify to vote. Property requirements were repealed over time but after the War of the Rebellion Southern states began looking at ways to restrict black voting. By the early 1900s, all Southern states had poll taxes in place. The poll tax negatively impacted people of lesser means, compromising the ability to vote of blacks, poor whites, women, and the elderly. However, for blacks, the poll tax was one of several legal means used to politically neuter them. However, in 1920, North Carolina became the first Southern state to repeal their poll tax, with Louisiana and Florida following suit in 1934 and 1937 respectively. In 1937, the Supreme Court in Breedlove v. Suttles unanimously upheld Georgia’s poll tax when challenged for granting women an exception and for making age exceptions. In 1941, Representative Lee Geyer (D-Calif.) sponsored a bill to ban the poll tax for federal elections. The bill passed the House on October 13, 1942 254-84 (D 124-80, R 126-4) after Geyer’s 1941 death, but the Senate wouldn’t proceed due to Southern obstruction. Rep. William Colmer (D-Miss.) had denounced the bill as a “force bill” that had as its purpose “to enfranchise the Negro in the South” (Jenkins and Peck, 150). Rep. Arthur Mitchell (D-Ill.), the House’s only black member at the time, wouldn’t accept that criticism of the bill. He responded, “if the Negro is good enough to…shed blood for the country, then he is entitled to vote in peacetime as well as wartime” (Jenkins and Peck, 150).

Given Geyer’s passing, the bill needed a new House sponsor for the 78th Congress, and in stepped Vito Marcantonio, the sole representative from the socialist American Labor Party of New York. He pushed a new version of the anti-poll tax bill previously proposed by Sen. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) which prohibited the use of the poll tax for federal elections and primaries. This measure passed the House 265-110 (D 92-93, R 169-17) on May 25th, but again met with a Southern filibuster which killed the legislation. In 1945, Marcantonio tried again, the measure passing the House 251-105 (D 118-86, R 131-19) on June 12th but once again Southern senators successfully blocked it. Because Marcantonio, who was pro-communist, was the sponsor of the 1943 and 1945 bills, Southern Democrats used this to tag the bill as something that fulfilled a communist agenda despite far broader support as evidenced by roll call votes. As Rep. John Rankin (D-Miss.) charged, “communism…is responsible for bringing this measure to the floor of the House, when everyone knows it violates the Constitution of the United States” (Jenkins and Peck, 153). Others charged it was nothing more than political opportunism on the part of Northern politicians who had significant black constituencies. Most of the opposition to such measures came from Southern Democrats interested in preserving the Jim Crow system, but there were a few who genuinely thought that a poll tax ban by legislative means was unconstitutional. For instance, Rep. John W. Byrnes (R-Wis.), one of the GOP’s tax experts, opposed legislative efforts to ban the poll tax, but supported most other civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.  

In the 1946 elections Republicans won control of Congress, and the conservative 80th Congress also passed a poll tax bill in the House, this one being sponsored by Rep. George Bender (R-Ohio), a protégé of Senator Robert Taft. This measure passed on July 21, 1947 on a vote of 290-112 (R 216-14, D 73-98). The bill met the same fate as the others in the Senate.

In 1949, one last legislative try in the House was attempted with Rep. Mary Norton (D-N.J.) being the sponsor instead of Marcantonio, but this didn’t impact how representatives voted, with it passing 273-116 (D 150-92; R 121-24) on July 26th. The bill met the same fate the last four had met in the Senate. However, an alternative proposal was gaining support: a constitutional amendment. In 1944, the Republican platform included support for a constitutional amendment banning the poll tax for federal elections and the proposal gained a significant supporter in Sen. Spessard Holland (D-Fla.). Although a segregationist, he represented a state that had already repealed its poll tax and he didn’t think a constitutional amendment constituted a precedent for passing civil rights legislation.

In the 1950s, the civil rights emphasis became more about voting rights generally in the South, and two watered-down civil rights bills became law, thus progress on the poll tax amendment was delayed. However, in 1962, the proposal came to the floor of the Senate. By this point, only five states, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, had poll taxes on the books and of those states Alabama and Mississippi were reported by the Civil Rights Commission at the time to have continued providing active barriers to black voting. As Charles Goodell (R-N.Y.), who opposed the measure because he thought it too weak, noted, “It will apparently have no significant effect upon Negro rights anywhere except in Alabama and Mississippi and its effect in those two States is questionable” (Congressional Record, 17664). Although President Kennedy and Congressional liberals would have preferred a legislative repeal of the poll tax, they supported the constitutional amendment and it passed the Senate on March 27th 77-16 (D 47-15, R 30-1). The House followed suit on August 27th 295-86 (D 163-71, R 132-15). The amendment was ratified two years later. Although in 1965 a ban on state poll taxes was debated for inclusion in the Voting Rights Act, it was rejected in favor of it being resolved in the courts. The following year, the Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections found poll taxes unconstitutional at state level on a 6-3 vote. Justice Hugo Black, the only member of the court who also voted on the Breedlove decision, was one of the three dissenters. With that decision ended the usage of poll taxes for any elections in the United States.


Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937).

Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966).

Jenkins, J.A. and Peck, J. (2013, February). Building Toward Major Policy Change: Congressional Action on Civil Rights, 1941-1950. Law and History Review, 31(1).

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HR 7. Making Unlawful the Requirement for the Payment of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite for Voting in a Primary or Other Election for National Officers. On Passage. Govtrack.

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HR 29. Make Unlawful the Requirements for the Payment of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite to Voting in a Primary or Other Election for National Officers. Motion to Suspend Rules and Pass. Govtrack.

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HR 3199. Passage. Govtrack.

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To Pass H.R. 7, a Bill to Make Unlawful the Requirement for Payment of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite for Voting in a Primary or Other Election of National Office-Holders. Govtrack.

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Representative Goodell (NY). “Qualifications of Electors.” Congressional Record 108: 13 (August 27, 1962) p. H17664.

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S.J. Res. 29. Approval of Resolution Banning the Poll Tax as Prerequisite for Voting in Federal Elections. Govtrack.

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S.J. Res. 29. Constitutional Amendment to Ban the Use of Poll Tax as a Requirement for Voting in Federal Elections. Govtrack.

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To Pass H.R. 1024 Which Declares Illegal the Requirement of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite for Voting or Registering to Vote for President, Vice President, or U.S. Representative. Govtrack.

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Phil Landrum: Architect of Anti-Poverty Law and Conflicted Democrat

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In 1960, John F. Kennedy had his second best performance in the state of Georgia, winning over 62% of the vote, exceeding his support in his home state of Massachusetts. Although Georgia politicians had grown more conservative since the New Deal, this change being best represented by the rightward shift of Senator Walter F. George, they were still strongly wed to the Democratic Party. One of the Democrats that represented Georgia politics’ conundrum between party loyalty and ideology quite well in the 1960s and 1970s was Representative Phil Landrum (1907-1990). Elected to Congress in 1952 representing Jasper, he gained a bit of a conservative reputation, but he could support a surprising number of Democratic initiatives.

Interest rating groups couldn’t seem to agree on what Landrum was ideologically. Americans for Democratic Action didn’t care for him much, with his adjusted scores ranging from 0% to 67%. Americans for Constitutional Action, on the other hand, gave him scores, adjusted for counting for pairs, between 19% and 85%. The 1950s and 1960s had some discrepancies, which can be accounted for in part by ADA’s stronger emphasis on social and foreign policy and ACA’s stronger emphasis on fiscal and agriculture policy. Landrum was quite conservative on the subject of foreign aid and was mostly so on social issues, while he was more amenable to the Democratic platform on fiscal and agriculture issues. Thus, during the Eisenhower years Landrum comes off as solidly conservative by ADA standards but moderate by ACA standards. Likewise, with the Kennedy and Johnson years, Landrum comes off as moderately liberal by ACA standards while he is moderate to moderately conservative by ADA standards. Their ratings seemed more in accord with his record in the 1970s, which was his most conservative period. In 1959, Landrum attracted opposition from labor unions for his collaboration with Rep. Robert Griffin (R-Mich.) in the Landrum-Griffin Act, a measure backed by President Eisenhower which was aimed at combating organized labor corruption and racketeering and was harsher on them than the union-backed reform measure, the Kennedy-Ives Bill.

Perhaps partly as a result of Kennedy’s impressive performance in Georgia, Landrum grew more and more committed to major Democratic programs in the 1960s as did other Democrats in the state including the more hardline John J. Flynt of Griffin, but like most other Georgia politicians, he remained a through-and-through segregationist. He headed the subcommittee on education, which wrote the Library Services Act. Landrum, most importantly, proved key to winning sufficient support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, contained largely in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which he drafted and sponsored. A key provision that Landrum included that helped win sufficient Southern Democratic support was that governors could veto community action projects in their states. Indeed, five other members of the Georgia delegation voted for the bill. There is a strange contrast in the fact that President Johnson relied for one of his signature achievements an intractable opponent of one of his other signature achievements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, that year, the state for the very first time in its history voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. The state in four years went from the second best performing state for Democrats to the fifth worst, and this contributed to the pushing of Democrats to the right. In 1964 and 1966, Landrum faced difficult primaries, possibly due to his cooperation with LBJ.

Although Landrum had been the House architect of the anti-poverty law, by the late 1960s he was starting to back budget cuts for it and by the Nixon Administration, he was backing turning the anti-poverty program entirely to the states and voting against its extension. He also voted against the Family Assistance Plan, the Nixon Administration proposal for guaranteed minimum income for families. However, even during this time, he parted with conservatives in some ways. Landrum joined the doves in backing a fixed timetable for pulling out of Vietnam and his vote against a school prayer amendment didn’t please social conservatives.

By his last term in Congress, from 1975 to 1977, he was voting as a solid conservative. His lifetime MC-Index score stands at a 52%, reflecting both his more liberal and more conservative periods.


Cook, J. (1990, November 22). Phil Landrum, 83, Former Lawmaker From Georgia, Dies. The New York Times.

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Phil Landrum, 83, Former Lawmaker From Georgia, Dies – The New York Times (

Landrum, Phillip M. Our Campaigns.

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Our Campaigns – Candidate – Phillip M. Landrum