The party he helped to build in Washington is on the run and many of his old constituents now support a Republican president, but today in this small Texas town a gathering of mostly Democratic politicians tried to draw strength from one of their legends, Sam Rayburn.
The National Guard armory was dressed in patriotic bunting and flags snapped crisply in the winter breeze as the powerful and the ordinary paid tribute to a man whose career was the embodiment of power and simplicity.
Perhaps it was only a coincidence that the focus today was not on the present by wholly on the past. The Democrats' problems are legion and the House that Rayburn ruled is a far different institution that the one he knew, but today there was no talk of Democratic defections or "Boll Weevils." All that was put aside as people came to Bonham to honor the unchanging values of conviction and strength of character that Rayburn held so dear.
He was born 100 years ago today in Tennessee and came to Texas when he was 5. He served in the House for 48 years under eight presidents, wrote legislation that built the New Deal and rose to be one of the greatest Speakers in history.
But it was here in northeast Texas that the character of Sam Rayburn was shaped on his parents' farm, here in Bonham that a political oration so captured his imagination that he set his sights on Congress and the Speaker's chair.
As Texas Gov. Bill Clements put it today: "During his 25 terms in Washington, he never forgot who he was or why he was there. Washington did not change Sam Rayburn; he changed it in working for the good of the nation."
Rayburn went to Washington at 30 but never left behind the Bonham of his boyhood, and so there was standing room only as distinguished speakers paid homage to Mr. Sam and recounted fond memories of everything from his integrity to his bald head.
Rayburn was praised as a patriot and statesman, but a man who could "unashamedly fight for Texas interests," who almost single-handedly preserved the oil depletion allowance and pushed through legislation to deregulate natural gas.
He was described as a man who was true to his constituents but believed a good politician could lead them where he thought they should go.
Some of the memories were deeply personal. "I would never have had the opportunity I had if Mr. Rayburn had not had confidence in me," said former speaker Carl Albert, whose Oklahoma district was just across the Red River from Rayburn's.
For others around town, the memories are less personal but no less deep. He was a man who brought the farmer "out of the mud and out of the dark," said Mary Ward, who was showing visitors through Rayburn's family home this morning.
The day's events, which included a reception at Rayburn Library, a luncheon at the Rayburn Research and Educational Center and an afternoon of memories at the armory, drew friends and colleagues of Rayburn, including Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and House Majority Leader James C. Wright; Rep. Lindy Boggs, whose late husband served under Rayburn, and Clements, the only apparent Republican in the audience.
Lady Bird Johnson recalled Lyndon Johnson's first meeting with Rayburn. Johnson, then a congressional aide, was ill in a Washington hospital. Rayburn appeared in the doorway and said, "Son, I am an old friend of your father's and I just wanted to drop by and see how you are."
And she spoke of Rayburn's achievements. "He never flinched from the word 'government,' " she said, adding that it was Rayburn who helped break "the stranglehold of the greedy with the . . . whole staccato of New Deal legislation that lifted the nation out of the Depression and got it moving."
Wright remembered the day Rayburn called him to the Speaker's rostrum for a fatherly chat.
The first civil rights bill since Reconstruction was pending, and Rayburn said to the young congressman, "Jim, I expect you've been receiving a lot of letters against this bill from prejudiced and frightened people, but I think you want to vote for it, and I truly believe that in future years you will be proud that you did."
"As usual," Wright said, "he was right."