The state of Missouri has produced some interesting characters as a state, but its most lasting was Clarence Cannon (1879-1964), whose parliamentary knowledge of Congress was second to none and who served from 1923 to 1964.
Cannon started work in Washington for Speaker of the House Champ Clark, where he familiarized himself with legislative rules and procedure and in 1917 he became House parliamentarian. Although the Republicans won Congress in 1918, Cannon was so good at his job they retained him. By 1919 he had written a book on the subject, A Synopsis of the Procedure of the House. Cannon subsequently wrote Procedure in the House of Representatives (1920) and Cannon’s Precedents of the House of Representatives (1936). So knowledgeable he was that he was the designated parliamentarian of every Democratic National Convention from 1920 to 1960. Clark lost reelection in 1920 and died only two days before his term was to end. Such a departure left the door open for Cannon to begin his political career. In 1922, he won back his old boss’s seat, ousting Republican Theodore Hukriede by 13 points. Cannon was a loyal Democrat and exceedingly popular with his constituents, but one who would not refrain from exercising independence when he felt it right, especially on matters of one of his specialties: the budget.
Although he supported a lot of the New Deal and actively defended public ownership of power generating facilities, Cannon was averse to high spending (at least outside of agriculture) and frequently backed budget cuts, whether presidents of either party wanted them or not. He secured his place of power in Washington when in 1941 he became the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, a post he would hold for all but four years of the rest of his life. In this post, Cannon even initially even blocked funding for the Manhattan Project as overly costly, until he was briefed on its merits, after which he approved. Cannon could also be pugnacious and got into conflicts with some members. In 1933, fellow Missouri Democrat Milton Romjue slapped Cannon in the face during an argument and he responded by slugging him, giving him a black eye. In 1945, he socked his Republican counterpart, John Taber of New York, during an argument in the bathroom. He didn’t fall short on rhetorical conflict either, in 1947 he lampooned Rep. Frank B. Keefe (R-Wis.) in a debate on the floor of the House, “Of all the ‘piddlin’ politicians that ever piddled ‘piddlin’ politics on this floor, my esteemed friend, the gentleman from Wisconsin, is the greatest piddler that ever piddled” (Masonry Today). In the early 1960s Cannon also got into a bitter feud with elderly Senator Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.) on matters of parliamentary procedure. He even applied his nature when writing to the former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who in response to her 1964 letter thanking him for his work for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, stating that “I know the fight was not easy”, wrote “You say the fight was not easy, but on the contrary, we had cooperation from everyone. It was done practically by acclamation” (Masonry Today).
On civil rights, Cannon had a mostly positive record. Although he voted against anti-lynching legislation in 1937 and 1940, he backed nearly all subsequent civil rights measures, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Cannon also voted for Powell Amendments that would have cut off education funding for segregated schools, even though he was from a state that until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) had de jure segregated schools.
Cannon proved a thorn in the side of the Eisenhower Administration with his aversion to increased foreign aid spending and having as his right-hand on the matter Otto Passman, a Louisiana Democrat who was a known foe of most foreign aid measures and had even opposed the Marshall Plan. Despite his increasingly frequent dissents in later years and many sources labeling him a “conservative”, he still proved a strong supporter of certain New Deal fundamentals, including a strong minimum wage and public power. Also, his MC-Index life score is a 27%, with his highest score being achieved in the 86th Congress, when he scored a 55%. In 1962, although Cannon had supported much of President Kennedy’s New Frontier legislation, he denounced the 87th Congress as the first hundred-billion-dollar Congress to the consternation of the Democratic leadership. He also proved a staunch opponent of funding NASA, denouncing it as a “moondoggle” (Masonry Today). Although Cannon had planned to run for reelection in 1964, his health couldn’t hold out and on May 11th he suffered nausea and was diagnosed in the hospital with heart failure. He died the next day at the age of 85. Such an institution Cannon was at the end of his career, that President Lyndon B. Johnson and former President Harry S. Truman attended his funeral.
Clarence Andrew Cannon Passes Away. Masonry Today.
James Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin (1869-1951) had two things he would say he was proud of during his political career: founding Mother’s Day and shooting a black man in an altercation. This is the story of the man who made Mother’s Day possible but also rose and fell in politics through his practice of bigotry.
The son of a slaveowner, he was commonly known as “Cotton Tom”, as one of his priorities was keeping the price of cotton high. Another was white supremacy. Such staunch feelings were not necessarily endemic to members of the Heflin family: his uncle, Robert Stell Heflin, had been a Radical Republican and his nephew, Howell Heflin, had a history of supporting civil rights before and during his career in the Senate.
Heflin’s rise to prominence began in 1901 when as a state legislator he participated in the Alabama constitutional convention. He successfully argued for excluding blacks from voting, stating, “…God almighty intended the negro to be the servant of the white man” (Feldman, 77). Heflin, a man who regarded himself as a staunch advocate for poor whites, and others at the constitutional convention also explicitly endorsed the idea that no individual black person could be equal or better than any individual white person. He simultaneously thought of himself as a friend of black people who accepted the place he wanted them to occupy in Southern society. As Secretary of State of Alabama, Heflin had endorsed the convict leasing system, which sold black prisoners (who were sometimes falsely convicted) to farmers and industrialists for the duration of their sentence and in some cases suffered worse working conditions than American slavery. In 1904, he was elected to the House, where he stood for expanding rural mail routes and stronger railroad regulation. In 1908, Heflin tried to introduce segregation to streetcars in Washington D.C., a proposal which was defeated. He received death threats over his proposal and was authorized to carry a gun for self-protection. In the wake of this controversy he got into a scuffle with Lewis Lundy, a black man who had confronted him on a streetcar. Accounts differ as to circumstances, but apparently Heflin, who was with Rep. Edwin Ellerbe (D-S.C.), saw Lundy cursing and drinking whiskey and asked him to stop. After Lundy shouted insults at him, the scuffle broke out, with Heflin throwing him out onto the platform of the St. James Hotel stop and shooting at him after he saw Lundy reach into his pocket for what he thought was a razor. He received a head wound, the cause which may have been a bullet wound, Heflin pistol-whipping him, or the impact from being thrown out of the streetcar. Heflin also managed to accidentally shoot a white bystander, Thomas McCreary, when the bullet ricocheted into his leg. Although he was indicted for assault with a deadly weapon, Heflin got the charges dropped after he paid McCreary’s hospital expenses and Lundy didn’t show up to testify against him. A lawsuit filed by Lundy appeared to go nowhere. Heflin thought himself justified, stating “Under the circumstances there was nothing more for me to do, I am glad to say I have not yet reached the point where I will see a Negro, or a white man either, take a drink in the presence of a lady without saying something to him. I did only what any other gentleman placed in similar circumstances would have done” (Langeveld). Others, including editorial writers from Southern newspapers, thought he had through his conduct unnecessarily escalated the situation.
On May 10, 1913, Heflin introduced his most lasting achievement in House Resolution 103, which requested the donning of white carnations by federal and elected officials to honor mothers. He stated that mothers are “the greatest source of our country’s strength and inspiration” (U.S. House). The following year, in response to the resolution’s popularity, he introduced as a law with Senator Morris Sheppard (D-Tex.) that the second Sunday of May be observed as Mother’s Day and requesting American flags be displayed in government buildings, homes, and offices “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country” (U.S. House). After the legislation quickly passed, President Wilson signed the law. This is Heflin’s, and Senator Morris Sheppard’s, mark on every year in the United States. Despite Heflin’s successful advocacy for Mother’s Day, he voted against women’s suffrage, since he, as did many other Southern whites, had no interest in the U.S. officially granting suffrage to black women and believed the woman’s place was in the home. He was outright contemptuous of his Alabama colleague, Richmond Hobson, for endorsing women’s suffrage, mockingly suggesting he don a bonnet and a dress (Watson). Heflin was also a supporter of Prohibition, but voted against the Prohibition Amendment, since, perhaps thinking about the specter of federal intervention on the South’s Jim Crow policies, he chose to take a state’s rights position. He regularly indulged in conspiracy theories and wild accusations, including one in September 1914 that 13-14 members of the House were influenced in their votes by a German slush fund, an accusation an investigation in October 1917 determined to be false (Langeveld). In 1920, Alabama’s voters saw fit to elect him to the Senate to replace the late John H. Bankhead.
As a senator, he was an economic progressive, opposing the tax policies of the Harding and Coolidge Administrations and supporting federal intervention for relief of farmers. Heflin also continued his reputation as one of the staunchest racists on Capitol Hill, publicly protesting New York’s legalization of interracial marriage. When New York Senator Royal Copeland reacted angrily to Heflin, Heflin responded that if he ever traveled to Alabama for a presidential campaign that the people would lynch him. He also had a history of engaging in anti-Catholic rhetoric and in 1928, he refused to back the candidacy of Democrat Al Smith, stating “Alabama isn’t going for Al Smith. Neither is any other southern state, except possibly Louisiana. He is a Tammanyite, wringing wet and a Roman Catholic. I would vote against him for all three reasons” (Langeveld). Heflin endorsed Republican Herbert Hoover for supporting Prohibition and not being a Catholic, and indeed Alabama voters seemed to have a difficult time balancing their historic loyalty to the Democratic Party and their feelings on Catholics, and Smith only won the state by less than three points. By contrast, in 1924, Democratic nominee John W. Davis had won the state by over 40 points. As it turned out, Heflin’s electoral career did come to an end over prejudice, that is, his anti-Catholic prejudice. As he went on a speaking tour speaking against Smith during the 1928 campaign he was pelted with eggs, stones, and a quart bottle. Heflin railed against the Smith campaign that it was a Catholic conspiracy, “Wake up, Americans! Gird your loins for political battle, the like of which you here not seen in all the tide of time in this country. Get ready for this battle. The Roman Catholics of every country on the earth are backing his campaign. Already they are spending money in the South buying up newspapers, seeking to control the vehicles that carry the news to the people. They are sending writers down there from New York and other places to misrepresent and slander our State, all this to build a foundation on which to work for Al Smith for President. The Roman Catholic edict has gone forth in secret articles, ‘Al Smith is to be made President.’ ” (Bailey). He was punished by Democratic primary voters for his disloyalty in 1930 by turning him out in favor of John H. Bankhead II by about 50,000 votes. Heflin ran as an Independent and blustered about a Papal conspiracy within the Democratic Party to defeat him and the press as well as many political figures in Alabama denounced his antics. Grover Cleveland Hall wrote in the Montgomery Advertiser that he was a “bully by nature, a mountebank by instinct, a Senator by choice…Thus this preposterous blob excites our pity if not our respect, and we leave him to his conscience in order that he may be entirely alone and meditate over the life of a charlatan whose personal instinct and personal vanity are always of paramount concern to him” (Langeveld). Heflin tried to appeal his loss to the Senate in 1932, claiming massive voter fraud and delivering a five hour speech in which he again capitalized on racial prejudice, but the Senate easily dismissed his claim. His lifetime MC-Index score stands at a 9%. That year, he actively campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt and proved a supporter of the New Deal. As a reward for his support, Heflin was appointed special representative for the Federal Housing Administration. He unsuccessfully ran for his old House seat in 1934 and in 1937, he tried again to be elected to the Senate, but lost to Congressman Lister Hill. That same year, KKK Grand Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans publicly revealed that Heflin had joined the organization in the late 1920s. His time in electoral politics had come to an end.
In 1948, Heflin opted to stick with the Democratic Party rather than endorse the Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond. Apparently a candidate being Catholic was more offensive to the staunch bigot than a candidate who supported civil rights! Then again, Republican Thomas Dewey was also a supporter of civil rights, having signed an anti-discrimination bill as New York’s governor, so Heflin may have been thinking that Jim Crow might have a better chance with Southern Democrats continuing to have a say even with a pro-civil rights Democratic president. He suffered dementia in his final years, which most notably manifested in a public incident when he tried to board a bus for Washington D.C. wearing a bathrobe. Heflin died on April 22, 1951.
“Cotton Tom” Heflin represented a different age in politics, but even in that age he stood out as particularly egregious in his bigoted demagoguery, and even Alabama voters who strongly backed Jim Crow tired of his antics. Yet, few people know that he more than any other politician is credited for the creation of Mother’s Day.
Again, Heflin. (1930, February 17). TIME Magazine.
Bailey, G. (2017, November 28). Worse than Roy Moore? History News Network.
Although the 1950s often get looked back on with some reverence by conservatives for being a relatively calmer and more “family friendly” time than the decades that followed, it was a time of some disappointment for them. President Eisenhower was a moderate, the GOP was not nearly as gung-ho against New Deal measures as they were when Truman was president, and Southern Democrats too were proving less conservative than during the Truman years as well. On June 27, 1958, at the behest of a group of conservative senators, a new organization, Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA), was born to elect more constitutional conservatives. This was the conservative answer to Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group founded in 1946 dedicated to preserving and expanding the New Deal. As I have written about before, the 1958 election proved calamitous for Republicans, with them losing thirteen seats, all to liberal Democrats. Democrats also gained two Senate seats with the admission of Alaska that year and in two cases retiring Republicans were replaced with more liberal ones. This set the stage for the politics of the 1960s.
The ACA issued seven guidelines for which it based its index to judge members of Congress. These were, “For safeguarding the God-given dignity of the individual and promoting sound economic growth by strengthening constitutional government; for sound money and against inflation; for the private competitive market and against government interference; for local self-government and against central government intervention; for private ownership and against Government ownership; for individual liberty and against coercion; for National sovereignty” (Congressional Record). They also aimed to strengthen the Conservative Coalition, made up of Republicans and Southern Democrats.
The ACA’s Start
Under the leadership of retired Admiral Ben Moreell, founder and former head of the Seabees construction battalions and chair of Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., this organization lobbied for these principles and for electing legislators of both parties who would do so. People who were on the organization’s Board of Trustees included former President Herbert Hoover, former Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison (yes, a son of Thomas!), Dwight Eisenhower’s older brother Edgar, John Wayne, and former Congressman Howard Buffett (Warren’s father). In 1960, they published their first ACA-Index, which covered for the Senate 77 votes from 1955-1959 and for the House 40 votes from 1957-1959. These were intended to influence conservatives for the 1960 election. This publication got some publicity when General Edwin A. Walker, under his mandatory “Pro-Blue” anti-communist program, got in trouble for calling former President Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson “definitely pink” in print, promoting conservative literature and the ACA-Index to troops under his command and telling them and their families to consult it before voting, a violation of the Hatch Act. He would resign the army after being admonished, being the only general to do so in the 20th century. The ACA was fearless in its selection of votes: there were years in which no senator would get a 100% because their standards were so high and they didn’t seem to care who voted for or against their position. They broadly opposed the New Frontier, the Great Society, foreign aid, farm subsidies, raising the debt limit, and major civil rights legislation. However, chair Moreell made it clear that they didn’t expect perfection: when the organization honored Congressman Bob Dole of Kansas with their Distinguished Service Award on May 25, 1965, Moreell stated, “The acceptance of this award does not mean you are in complete agreement with all of the measures advocated by ACA nor does it imply any commitment to support those measures in the future. ACA will never impugn the motives or question the probity of those who do not agree with our views” (Americans for Constitutional Action).
Issues They Considered And Didn’t
Americans for Constitutional Action had some interesting inclusions and exclusions for what they graded. During the 1950s they counted zero votes on final passage for mutual security bills while ADA consistently counted them. ACA counted some specific measures involving foreign aid and amendments increasing foreign aid though. They also didn’t count federal aid for education during the Eisenhower years, possibly because the issue of desegregation often got tied to them, resulting in a Southern Democrat voting bloc against. Yet, other measures regarding education they did count. For the Senate, they almost never counted the invoking of cloture to end debate and even declined to do so when they were the only Senate votes on the proposal to end the “right to work” provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act during the Great Society Congress. One of the most notable exclusions I’ve seen was the entire issue of abortion. ADA and ACU both counted abortion as an issue, but ACA repeatedly declined to do so. Maybe this was seen as a Catholic issue for them (as it is often seen abroad) or they failed to reach a consensus on whether they thought abortion ought to be seen as a matter government should be involved in. They were also late on covering proposals to limit the reach of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, not opting to count it until 1975, whereas ACU started counting in 1972. The ACA system I think in many ways was a better one than both ADA and ACU. They counted each issue as a point (as opposed to double-counting most important ones), didn’t count absences against people, often were more comprehensive in their vote selection than either ACU or ADA, sometimes they counted some lower profile economic issues, and they were most insistent on coming out against subsidies and bailouts. They also far more regularly counted matters such as budget cuts than ADA did and were less heavy on social issues. Chairman Moreell ultimately hoped through its endorsements and active support for conservative candidates as well as these ratings to make the two parties ideologically responsible: Republicans being the solidly conservative party and the Democrats being the solidly liberal party.
The Slow Decline of ACA
The beginning of the fall of Americans for Constitutional Action came with the landslide victory of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. After that election, another conservative organization was founded, the American Conservative Union. This group had the backing of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and several former and current representatives. However, the ACU’s first year of rating Congress was 1971, so the ACA had the conservative monopoly so to speak on this matter until then. In time the ACU would get more attention and more prominence and crowd out the ACA, particularly with people like Buckley at the helm. In 1973, Moreell, now a man of eighty-one and in increasingly poor health, retired from the ACA. However, as late as 1980 it still attracted former members of Congress to its Board of Trustees, including H.R. Gross (R-Iowa), Gordon Scherer (R-Ohio), Al Cederberg (R-Mich.), Ed Lee Gossett (D-Tex.), Alton Lennon (D-N.C.), and O. Clark Fisher (D-Tex.). They continued to exist during the 1980s but sometime in the decade went defunct: the American Conservative Union had won the battle of influence. The ACA was also, unlike ACU, uncomfortably close to segregationists during its time. While the organization did have some people who voted for civil rights legislation on its Board of Trustees such as Charles B. Hoeven of Iowa and Katharine St. George and John Pillion of New York, it also had dyed-in-the-wool segregationists, the worst among them being a man who wasn’t even a member of Congress: ACA Assistant Director John J. Synon. Synon was one of the major lobbyists against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, called for closing all public schools and reverting to private schools in response to desegregation, and actively campaigned for George Wallace in 1968. Author William P. Hustwit wrote of him, “Calling someone like Synon a segregationist would be kind. He distributed works of scientific racism through the Patrick Henry Press and always took the most radical stances against civil rights” (125). The ACA seemed to ease up a bit on civil rights by the 1970s, but still counted issues such as busing and affirmative action. Critics also tried to tie the organization with the conspiratorial John Birch Society (JBS), and while ACA denied being supportive of the JBS, they had at least two members of the Board of Trustees who were also members of the John Birch Society: Howard Buffett and retired General Bonner Fellers. The ACU seems to have constituted as an organization a decisive break with the John Birch Society as well as the segregationist elements of the Conservative Coalition, although Southern Democrats did score rather high during the 1970s by their standards as well. The American Conservative Union today is the most significant and oldest conservative organization that issues ratings of members of Congress, but Americans for Constitutional Action was the first.
Sadly, their ratings are not readily available like Americans for Democratic Action’s or American Conservative Union’s are as no organization maintains a website with the ACA-Index. Indeed, one must go to specific university libraries to get access to their publications. It is an ongoing project of mine to reveal ACA-Indexes and discover in as full of detail as possible what the ACA used to judge senators and representatives. I have at my disposal information on what the ACA scores were and even how many votes were counted, and on this basis I try to ascertain what collection of votes produce these scores. I have had far greater success with the House and the Senate: I have the full record on what votes ACA counted to judge representatives from 1957 to 1978. For the Senate, I only have 1961, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1974. Hopefully I will be able, in time, to bring this to completion.
Adm. Ben Moreell Dies. (1978, August 1). The Washington Post.
Recently former Speaker of the House John Boehner has received some press for his new book, On The House: A Washington Memoir, where he has a lot of criticisms and in particular for those elected in the Tea Party wave and after who worked to undermine his position. Interestingly enough, Boehner himself was once part of a group of legislators who worked to change Washington. The 1990 election wasn’t great for the Republicans as midterms are historically not favorable to the party in the White House. However, it wasn’t catastrophic either, and seven new Republican representatives were elected who would stand out for their reformist efforts: Frank Riggs and John Doolittle of California, Jim Nussle of Iowa, Charles Taylor of North Carolina, John Boehner of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Scott Klug of Wisconsin. These seven worked to “shake up” Washington so to speak and did so by criticizing and drawing attention to special perks legislators got and publicizing scandals, such as the Congressional Post Office and House Banking scandals that exposed poorly run operations and abuses of power from members of Congress.
The Congressional Post Office Scandal
The Post Office scandal began with an embezzlement charge against an employee of the Congressional Post Office and expanded after Democratic efforts to stop the investigation. The Congressional Post Office was so badly run that the AP reported, “The transcripts, from interviews conducted two years ago as part of an internal House probe of its own postal system, portrayed an operation where tens of thousands of dollars lay loose in drawers and even on the floor, where recordkeeping was sloppy or nonexistent, and where some of the highest-paid employees spent their days reading newspapers” (Drinkard). Congressional Postmaster Robert Rota pled guilty to three charges in July 1993 and implicated through testimony Ways and Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), former Representative Joe Kolter (D-Penn.), and Kolter’s chief of staff. The Post Office was only effective when members of Congress, especially Rostenkowski, wanted special favors. As mail clerk Inga Lawson stated, ″Whenever he’d [Rostenkowski] call or wanted something, in fact everybody had to jump to it, you know, regardless of what it was″ (Drinkard). He would be convicted of mail fraud and Kolter would be convicted of conspiring with Rota to embezzle $9300 in taxpayer funds in 1996.
The House Banking Scandal
As the media was starting to catch on to the House Banking Scandal, Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the “Gang of Seven” decided to expose it as they correctly figured that more Democrats would be damaged than Republicans. Gingrich himself was damaged as a result as he was found to have had 22 overdrafts and came close to losing renomination over the matter in 1992 (Bolduc). The event was most notably publicized by Jim Nussle of Iowa, who delivered a speech while wearing a paper bag over his head to illustrate the shame check-kiting members brought to the House. The House bank did not function like a bank, rather like a credit union, and it functioned poorly: “It paid no interest and charged none on overdrafts. If a member didn’t mind signing the bum check, the bank didn’t mind cashing it. Technically, the congressmen didn’t bounce checks.–the bank almost never bothered to return them for insufficient funds. In fact, it was so badly run that many congressmen plausibly claim that they had no idea they were in arrears. As a result, a number of innocents inevitably will be tarred with the same brush as those “kiters” who deliberately manipulated their accounts to get interest-free loans” (Newsweek). Ultimately, the Gang of Seven were able to force the closure of the House Bank and twenty-two representatives were singled out by the House Ethics Committee for egregious overdrafts, among them eighteen Democrats and four Republicans. The worst offender for overdrafts was former Representative Tommy Robinson (R-Ark.), who had bounced 996 checks, some over 16 months overdue. Of the twenty-two listed, seventeen were still in office and of those, only five were reelected. The truth is that the biggest scandal surrounded how poorly the bank itself was run, as the Bank didn’t post deposits timely, and representatives were not given regular account statements or informed of when they had overdrawn. The 1992 elections would result in a whopping 110 new members for the next Congress and minor Republican gains. Four former representatives, one delegate, and the former sergeant at arms for the House were convicted of criminal charges related to the scandal. These scandals, in addition to an overall weariness of Democratic rule for so long and an unpopular healthcare proposal tarnishing President Clinton’s image as a moderate produced a political earthquake in 1994.
1994 Republican Revolution
The 1994 elections were the shining moment for the Republican Party as well as the Gang of Seven: Nussle and Boehner played significant roles in the drafting of the Contract with America, a list of conservative policy proposals they promised to bring to the floor should they win a majority. Two months before the 1994 elections, Boehner delivered a speech blasting the Democratic Congress, saying, “The liberal Democrat establishment in Washington doesn’t understand the concept of a contract because they don’t understand the meaning or the power of a kept promise” (Marcos & Wong). On November 8, 1994, the Republicans won 54 seats from the Democrats in the House, gaining a majority in that chamber for the first time in forty years. They also managed to defeat some powerful incumbents, including Speaker of the House Tom Foley of Washington, Judiciary Committee chair Jack Brooks of Texas, Intelligence Committee chair Dan Glickman of Kansas, and Rostenkowski, who had been indicted before the 1994 elections. The most notable accomplishment that came out of this was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which overhauled the welfare system. However, President Clinton and the Senate managed to block many of their proposals.
What Became of the Gang of Seven?
Frank Riggs (MCI: 80%) lost reelection in 1992 but returned in 1994 and unsuccessfully ran for the nomination to run against Senator Barbara Boxer in 1998. He has since moved to Arizona and lost an election for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2018.
John Doolittle (MCI: 96%) was forced to retire in 2009 due to his ties to Jack Abramoff. No charges were brought against him after an investigation.
Jim Nussle (MCI: 86%) served in the House until 2007. He had chosen not to run for reelection and unsuccessfully ran for governor against Democrat Chet Culver. Nussle subsequently served as President Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. He left the Republican Party on January 6, 2021, citing the storming of the U.S. Capitol, and now is an Independent.
Charles Taylor (MCI: 94%) lost reelection in 2006, having been politically weakened over controversies regarding his business dealings.
John Boehner (MCI: 93%) succeeded Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader in 2006, served as Minority Leader from 2007 to 2011, and as House speaker from 2011 to 2015. As Speaker he blocked further progressive legislation and regularly had to negotiate with President Obama for budget deals and ironically faced his own group of whippersnappers among the Tea Party freshmen, most notably the Freedom Caucus. Boehner is now the head of a cannabis lobbying firm, The National Cannabis Roundtable.
Rick Santorum (MCI: 89%) was elected to the Senate in 1994 and was elected Senate Republican Conference chair but lost reelection in 2006 by over 18 points. He subsequently ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2012 on a socially conservative platform but lost to Mitt Romney. Santorum tried again in the 2016 primary but didn’t make headway. He remains active in Republican politics and is a commentator for CNN.
Scott Klug (MCI: 60%) had promised to serve only four terms in his election bid in 1990 and he honored that promise, opting not to run for reelection in 1998.
Bolduc, B. (2012, January 20). Ex-Pols: Gingrich Supported Gang of Seven. National Review.
I am starting a series called “Texas Legends”…these are profiles of politicians from Texas who served in federally elected office 30 years or longer and served during the 20th century. In the days of Democratic domination of the South, voters in the region often chose to elect members of Congress with full cognizance that with seniority came great power, and no state fared better with this system than Texas. They got a president, two speakers of the House including the longest serving one in history, and numerous powerful committee chairmen. This growth of power was a benefit of Democratic national dominance starting in 1933, Texas’ Democratic dominance, and the tendency of voters to keep reelecting their members to retain leadership positions, such as committee chairmanships. These will be interspersed throughout other postings, so not everything else pauses for Texas Legends. Something to bear in mind about these men is that many, although not all, were racists who supported Jim Crow laws, very much products of their time and place. The first Texas Legend I will discuss is John Morris Sheppard (1875-1941), who started in Texas politics in a far different time, a time in which Texas politicians could be expected to be progressive.
Morris Sheppard grew up in a political family: his father, John Levi Sheppard, was himself a member of Congress, and it was upon his death in 1902 that 27-year old Morris stepped up to the plate to represent Texarkana. He was a staunch progressive, wanting to go further than Theodore Roosevelt in trust busting and in being an enthusiastic backer of the policies of Woodrow Wilson after his election to the Senate in 1913. Sheppard became particularly known as one of the leading Congressional pushers of Prohibition. In 1913, Sheppard participated in the drafting of the Webb-Kenyon Act, a law designed to help dry states enforce their Prohibition laws and in 1917 he succeeded in getting his legislation passed to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages in Washington D.C. Sheppard also authored the Eighteenth Amendment, instituting Prohibition nationwide, making him “the father of national Prohibition”. He was also a major Southern proponent of women’s suffrage. On foreign policy, Sheppard was a firm supporter of the Versailles Treaty with no reservations. Despite his reformist outlook, Sheppard, like most other Texas politicians of his day, was a staunch racist and segregationist: in 1929 he condemned First Lady Lou Hoover’s invitation of black Congressman Oscar De Priest’s (R-Ill.) wife to tea with other Congressional wives, stating, “I regret the incident beyond measure. It is recognition of social equality between the white and black races and is fraught with infinite danger to our white civilization” (New York World).
In 1921, Sheppard sponsored with Representative Horace Towner (R-Iowa) the Sheppard-Towner Act, providing for federal maternity aid, one of the few progressive measures to become law during the Republican 1920s, but it lapsed in 1929. He also stood as a strong advocate for federal aid to agriculture, banking regulation, and supported public ownership of power generating facilities. In 1929, he rose in the Democratic leadership, becoming Minority Whip, a post he served in until 1933. In 1932, he tried in vain to stop the adoption of the Constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition, but his amendment had grown too unpopular to remain. Indeed, Roosevelt’s stated support for repealing Prohibition in his 1932 campaign for president got him more support than his New Deal proposals (Lewis).
Sheppard proved a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and enthusiastically backed the New Deal, so strongly in fact that some in the state criticized him as a “rubber stamp”. He even spoke out for Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan” but ultimately joined in voting with the majority to kill it after House Judiciary chair Hatton Sumners stated that he would bottle it in committee and the death of Majority leader Joseph Robinson. He naturally refused to get on board with Roosevelt’s support of the Cullen-Harrison Act, which formally re-legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages. Having been a supporter of Wilsonian internationalism, Sheppard carried such enthusiasm to Roosevelt’s policies as chair of the Military Affairs Committee and backed his legislation to weaken Neutrality laws as well as Lend-Lease. On April 9, 1941, Sheppard died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 65. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 7%. Sheppard was in most ways a man of the left in his day, backing most progressive initiatives as well as the New Deal, but his views on race would be anathema to modern liberals and his leading role in Prohibition is not likely something they would be down for either.
Bailey, R. Sheppard, John Morris (1875-1941). Texas State Historical Association.
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 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 critic Edward Rumely would 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 post-mortem. 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 on 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).