CAPITOL HILL wags used to tell of glass breaking one night at the home of Speaker McCormack. "Wake up, John!" Mrs. McCormack whispered. "There's a burglar in the house!" "Don't be silly," the Speaker snapped. "In the Senate maybe, not in the House."
Burglars have since extended their range, diminishing that old tale but indirectly contributing this new catalogue of speaker lore. Burglars in the White House made Gerald Ford president, and Ford made Dick Cheney chief of staff. Wyoming voters then made Cheney a congressman; his own efforts have made him a respected young member and chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. The latter post may have contributed to Cheney's interest in history: unlike burglars, party policies in the House haven't exactly flourished since John McCormack's day. Lynne Cheney is a novelist and "writes frequently on American history." If her contributions to this volume include its lively prose, her novels must be intriguing.
The Cheneys have sketched eight "kings" of the Hill, each a speaker except for Thaddeus Stevens, Andrew Johnson's nemesis, whom the Cheneys threw in (voters repeatedly made the same mistake). The speakers range from Henry Clay, who won the job in his first term (Clay called his earlier Senate service, begun before he met the Constitution's minimum age requirement, a "juvenile indiscretion"), to Sam Rayburn, who waited 14 terms but eventually served twice as long as Clay. The other speakers considered are Polk, Blaine, Reed, Cannon, and Longworth.
Stevens and the seven speakers provide ample material for Mrs. Cheney's skills as novelist and historian and for her husband's reflections as an active member of the House. This marriage of perspectives often proves felicitous--Alice Roosevelt Longworth's possible conquest of Senator Borah livens up her husband's conquest of the Progressives--but a marriage of perspectives is not necessarily a marriage of convenience, and may produce a few inconvenient offspring.
Kings of the Hill suffers first from inconsistencies of narrative voice. We begin at the fireplace in Clay's boarding house: "As the child fell asleep and the women sewed, the men in the room would have shifted their chairs to face him. . . ." This is the start of a historical novel, an epic of speakers, but after 1812 we stop sharing each speaker's day and begin examining written words that he, his colleagues, and earlier biographers left behind.
The Cheneys' literary purpose is also confusing. This is no Profiles in Courage; some of these kings are more repellent than inspirational (children displaying Stevens' vindictiveness or Cannon's intolerance would worry us), and one--Rayburn--is portrayed as a pathetic self-promoter obsessed by power's trappings, not its constructive fruits. Each speaker lauded the primacy of the House over the Senate, invoking the House's more direct representation of the people, but that can hardly be the point either; the Cheneys emphasize that the House needs kings (selected, like senators of old, by legislative and not popular vote) precisely to insulate members from demands by constituents and special interests, to "check transient moves among the populace," as Garry Wills says.
Confusing purposes can create confusing history. The Cheneys cite Clay's successful promotion of the War of 1812, for example, as proof of his making the speakership a position of power. Apart from the dubiety of that enterprise--within two years, the British burned Clay's own Capitol--modern historians consider Clay more popular than powerful among colleagues. Clay won the right to select committee members, but used it to distribute power, not to concentrate it. He was, after all, the Great Compromiser, a strong partisan who rarely prevailed in his own causes but remained speaker by accepting that other members might legitimately prevail in theirs.
Perhaps Clay's democratic vision, so foreign to Cannon (and often, as the Cheneys show, to the needs of the House), explains the timidity ascribed here to Rayburn. Reluctantly, Mr. Sam broke the Rules Committee for President Kennedy; Kennedy's legislative program thus died on the House floor instead of in a small room upstairs. House procedures were ready for the New Frontier before the members themselves; Rayburn knew a speaker can reconfigure but not reconstitute the House.
The Cheneys' durable contribution is not a theory but a series of vivid cameos, small popularized portraits of large men whose names might otherwise merely adorn office buildings. If others have drawn the portraits more fully, few have made them so accessible. It's worth remembering that those who knew the House could change, and actually changed it, retained a capacity for self-amusement ("Gentlemen," (Speaker Reed) would drawl, "we have decided to perpetrate the following outrage."). And it's worth knowing, finally, that the House can still inspire an unabashed work of love.