Texas Legends #9: William R. Poage

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).

Chairman Poage

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.

https://www.baylor.edu/content/imglib/3/6/6/8/366893.jpg
Poage apparently shouting into the microphone, as he was wont to do.

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.

File:William R. Poage 1977 congressional photo.jpg
William R. Poage, 1977 Congressional photo.

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.

References

Baylor Students and Klan Membership. Waco History.

Retrieved from

https://wacohistory.org/files/show/2489

Burka, P. and Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.

Retrieved from

https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/the-best-the-worst-and-the-fair-to-middlin/

Duggan, L.W. Poage, William Robert (1899-1987). Texas State Historical Association.

Retrieved from

https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/poage-william-robert

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.

Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “Texas Legends #9: William R. Poage

  1. Can you retrieve the roll call vote for the final House passage of the weakened version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which you state that Poage apparently voted for? The only roll call I can find on GovTrack related to House passage of the bill appears to be the initial one on June 18, 1957, which Poage joined the rest of the Texas congressional delegation in opposing.

    And notwithstanding his racism in responding to being asked to support the Great Society, it sounds as if he was almost admitting that the purpose of the War on Poverty was to keep poor blacks on welfare and remaining poor. Johnson previously said in 1957: “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.” Now, that was regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which he weakened with removing Title III and adding the jury trial amendment, though it appears that Johnson carried such an attitude in enacting the Great Society. And sure enough, even a majority of the Southern Democrats (who are generically referred to as having been “conservative”) voted for the Food Stamp Act, including Poage.

    And yikes, that audio of him being interviewed about the KKK is chilling.

  2. Poage voted for adopting the Senate version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The vote you cite is the House version, which had yet to be weakened in the Senate.

    I take a bit of a different view on the Economic Opportunity Act vote. How Southerners voted on War on Poverty to a certain degree strikes me as a show of support or opposition to LBJ. Mississippi’s entire delegation, for instance, voted against the Economic Opportunity Act; that state’s politicians had been in rebellion against the national Democratic Party for some time. I definitely think the classification of Southern Democrats as “conservative” as a group is overly broad even after the Second New Deal and outright mistaken before the New Deal as before then they were supporters of William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. They certainly are as a bloc by comparison to radical liberals in the Northern Democratic Party (which is who many of these people who apply this label are), but many Southern Democrats after the Second New Deal came to possess an instinctual, rather than doctrinaire conservatism and were less conservative overall than the majority of the GOP of the 1950s-70s. That’s an interesting quote of Johnson’s, indeed he was a pro at courting and appealing to racist people, including Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and George and Herman Brown of Brown & Root, one of the businesses that bankrolled his campaigns. This was, as I’m sure you know, because LBJ was privately racist himself per Robert Caro’s research.

    The House’s vote on the Senate version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957:

    https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/85-1957/h96

    1. Ah, your analysis does seem to make some sense. And thanks for providing the roll call vote on the House approval of the Senate version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

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