After serving in the Texas State House from 1925 to 1929 and the Texas State Senate from 1931 to 1937, William Robert (Bob) Poage (1899-1987) had an ideal background for Congress. In 1934, he challenged incumbent Oliver Cross for the Democratic nomination but lost. In 1936, Cross opted to retire and Poage succeeded him easily. He represented Waco and specialized in farming issues as a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and was at the time a supporter of the New Deal, especially when it came to the subject. Poage’s accomplishments included helping establish the Rural Electrification Administration, sponsoring the Rural Telephone Act of 1949, and drafting the Poage-Aiken Act of 1965 for the establishment of water and wastewater systems in rural areas (Duggan). However, early on he was wary of the growing power of organized labor and he would regularly vote with the conservatives on this question. Indeed, Poage was never a 100% liberal and would fluctuate in his record. Early in his time in office, Poage developed Ménière’s disease, which would cause him terrible headaches and eventually rendered him deaf in one ear.
Poage and Civil Rights
As a member of Congress, Poage voted mostly as you would expect on the subject given the time and region he served in. Most curiously, he voted for the final, weakened version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but voted against the other civil rights era legislation, even the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968, which provided penalties for racial discrimination in the selection of federal juries, and had the strongest level of support of any significant such measure. As did most Texas representatives, he did not sign the Southern Manifesto. In 1964, Poage was approached about supporting President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, and in response, he said, “Oh, I see! You’re talking’ about the niggers!” (Lemann, 156) Despite such a response, he voted for its flagship legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Indeed, Poage seemed to give significant support to LBJ on some matters, including voting against the Republican substitute to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, despite voting against the bill on passage. In 1971, he was one of twenty-four representatives to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Not long after his retirement, he would on March 15, 1979, be interviewed, and one subject discussed was on the substantive presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Waco in the 1920s. Poage stated that, “I hadn’t gotten very close…I don’t know why, because I think I was more or less sympathetic with their efforts in those days. I look back now and I think they went much too far of course, much too far” (Waco History).
In 1966, Agriculture Committee Chairman Hal Cooley (D-N.C.) lost reelection to Republican Jim Gardner, thus Poage through the seniority system succeeded him in the next Congress. He had a mixed record on food stamps: although he voted to establish food stamp programs, he also often backed cuts and this, combined with his staunch support for generous agricultural subsidies that in some cases had made farmers millionaires, would be sources of conflict between him and Northern liberals. Poage indeed aided the growth of agribusiness. Ultimately, compromises were made on food stamps as well as subsidies. During his time as chairman, he was involved in the drafting of the 1972 Rural Development Act.
Given that Poage’s record shifted significantly to the right after the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, it must be pondered how much of his flexibility during that administration was for the sake of giving support to a fellow Texan in the White House, even if a liberal. Sometimes he was also the butt of jokes and humor. Colleagues referred to him in his presence as “The Bureau of Useless Information” for his knowledge of the intricacies and trivialities of agriculture and agricultural policy at home and abroad (Burka & Smith). He also had a penchant for shouting whenever he was speaking on a microphone. According to former Representative Paul Findley of Illinois (2011), “Democrat Graham Purcell told me, “Poage is the only man I ever knew who got infuriated at the sound of his own voice.” Another committee Democrat, Dawson Mathis of Georgia, made a humorous introduction of Poage to a luncheon audience, “Some people say they would rather listen to Bob Poage talk than eat. I understand what they mean now that I have listened to Bob eat lunch”” (90).
The Final Years
The 1974 midterms produced many new liberal Democrat members, the freshmen and women of this class known colloquially as the “Watergate babies”. The liberals sought to use these new numbers to their advantage. During the new Congress they managed to through quick procedural maneuvering end the House Committee on Un-American Activities for good (called the House Internal Security Committee by that time) and they wanted to make it clear that the old system of seniority was, like the HCUA, history. They did so by reviewing the committee chairs, and of them the following members came most to their attention: Wright Patman of Texas, Edward Hebert of Louisiana, and Bob Poage. Arkansas’ Wilbur Mills was also successfully pressured to resign after the Fanne Fox sex scandal. Although Poage was renominated for the post, he lost the caucus vote 141-144. At first, he was angry in his defeat, attributing to it his refusal to “go as far in my concessions to socialism as a majority of this House does” (Lawrence, 111). However, he was quick to cool down and gracefully accepted defeat, pledging his support and assistance as vice chairman for the new chairman, Tom Foley of Washington. It didn’t hurt that Foley had voted to renominate Poage. For his dignity and grace in defeat, Foley granted him some unusual privileges as former chairman, including being allowed to exceed time for questions.
After he was deposed as chairman, Poage’s record shifted to ultra-conservatism and he even scored a 100% by the conservative interest group Americans for Constitutional Action in 1976. Ten years ago by contrast, he had scored a 58%. That year, Texas Monthly profiled him in its article, “The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’”, rating the members of the Texas delegation to Congress and its authors wrote of him, “Asked to name the toughest vote of his career—the hardest decision he’d had to make—Bob Poage let his mind wander back to issues long forgotten, then replied: “It was probably the first vote I ever cast—to grant aid to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. I went along with Maury Maverick on that one. But I don’t think I’d do it today; that turned out to be a communist-financed organization.”
If you knew nothing else about Bob Poage, that statement would tell you all ‘but one of the most important things to know about him. It would tell you that he was in Congress before most Americans were born (next to George Mahon, he has been there longer than any other current member). It would tell you that he came as a New Deal liberal and became, in the course of twenty consecutive terms, a staunch conservative” (Burka & Smith). Indeed, he was a man perceived as out of date by the Watergate babies and they made him even more so by voting him out. Poage was also a critic of transparency in committee proceedings, complaining “We’ve got that ‘sunshine rule’; we’ve got to have all our meetings open to the public. You can’t get things done that way. Legislation is compromise, and you can’t get compromise in the public arena. You just sit there and wrangle” (Burka & Smith).
Given that there was little point to him hanging around as a backbencher beyond a final 1976 reelection victory, he opted to retire in 1978 but not before helping draft an agriculture bill that year. Poage’s successor, Marvin Leath, lauded him as the “Father of rural electrification and soil conservation” (Duggan). He used his retirement to write books on local Texas history as well as his autobiography, My First 85 Years (1985). On January 3, 1987, Poage died on the operating table while undergoing a coronary bypass.
Baylor Students and Klan Membership. Waco History.
Burka, P. and Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
Duggan, L.W. Poage, William Robert (1899-1987). Texas State Historical Association.
Findley, P. (2011). Speaking out: A Congressman’s lifelong fight against bigotry, famine, and war. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books.
Lawrence, J.A. (2018). The class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the roots of partisanship. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lemann, N. (1991). The promised land: The great black migration and how it changed America. (1st ed.). New York, NY: A.A. Knopf.
Lyons, R.D. (1975, January 23). House Democrats Oust 3 Chairman, But Retain Hays. The New York Times.