Barney Frank gets off a good line now and then. The late Morris Udall was known for his self-deprecating sense of humor. But probably no national lawmaker has ever caused more parenthetical insertions of “Laughter” in the Congressional Record than Thomas B. Reed, the Maine Republican who was speaker of the House during the better part of the 1890s.
Reed was no comedian. His appearance might have been conducive to buffoonery — he stood six feet two inches tall and weighed upwards of 300 pounds — but he didn’t clown around. Instead, he issued a steady stream of witticisms, especially in debate, where his knack for the memorable putdown came into play. The stupidity of a pair of fellow House members once coaxed this crack from Reed: “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” Another time, he informed a garrulous opponent: “The gentleman’s time has expired, and I have the floor; and I want to say it is an improvement to the floor.” He could be equally droll in private moments. At a Washington dinner party, a wealthy lawyer named Joseph Choate made the preposterous assertion that he’d never been present at either a poker game or horse race. To which the host replied, “I wish I could say that.” “Why don’t you say it?” Reed interjected. “Choate just did.” Reed was so good at this sort of thing that he could get away with exulting in it. After leaving one opponent visibly flummoxed on the House floor, Reed said, “Having embedded that fly in the liquid amber of my remarks, I will proceed.”
As James Grant points out in this astute new biography, however, Reed was much more than a barrel of Congressional laughs. First elected to the House in 1877, he served at a time when that body often tied itself in procedural knots. The “filibuster” of Grant’s subtitle was not the limitless speechifying sometimes found in today’s U.S. Senate, but a passive-aggressive form of delay: Members of the obstinate minority could derail a bill simply by refusing to answer a quorum call. There they were, in plain view on the House floor, but by rule and tradition any member who kept his mouth shut when his name was called could not be counted, and lacking a quorum the House would have to move on to other business or adjourn.
Reed deplored this practice while in the minority, arguing that it was not only obstructionist but insulting; it amounted to a member saying, “You cannot prove I am here unless I choose to open my mouth.” On becoming speaker at the age of 50, in 1889, Reed was determined to bring the recurrent fiction to an end. In a well-done set-piece, Grant restages the ensuing drama. “I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present,” raged a Democrat, “and I desire to read from parliamentary law on that subject.” “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present,” Reed answered. “Does he deny it?” Reed pushed through the rule change he wanted, only to have a later, Democratic speaker undo his work and then eat crow by partially reinstituting the reform when he found the House unmanageable.
Grant, who is best-known as the founder-publisher of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, dwells lovingly on the protracted late-19th-century battle between gold bugs and silverites over the redeemability of U.S. currency. Although some readers will be tempted to skim this arcane material, for the most part Grant explains it clearly, even stylishly. I’m not sure, however, that in the end he fully appreciates his subject’s salient quality. “If he was not the funniest great American statesmen,” Grant writes of Reed toward the end of the book, “he was certainly among the funniest.” But as mentioned, Reed was witty, which is not the same thing as funny, and I had to turn to Barbara Tuchman’s marvelous chapter on Reed in “The Proud Tower” to unearth some of the speaker’s cleverest lines, which Grant had left out.
Grant is excellent, however, in explaining how Reed could be a man of principle but also a practical politician, willing to take half a loaf when necessary and as famous for his imperturbability at the speaker’s rostrum as he was for his love of fried cod balls. Reed’s conscience was not infinitely elastic, however. He did all he could to head off the imbecilic Spanish-American War (much to the chagrin of the bellicose Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt). And when the United States went to war just the same, Reed realized that his time was up. In 1899, after 22 years of representing his district, he chose not to run again. As he explained in a letter to a friend, “Had I stayed I must have been as Speaker always in a false position in aiding and organizing things in which I did not believe or using power against those who gave it to me.”
He joined a swanky New York City law firm, became a friend of Mark Twain’s, and read French literature in the original — a hobby that gave him much pleasure over the years. As a lawyer he finally managed to set aside the nest-egg he’d wanted to leave his family (his failure to do so while a member of Congress speaks for his integrity in the Age of Boodle). Three years after leaving Washington, he died, rather suddenly at age 63, of a kidney ailment. Late in life, he’d sat for a portrait by the great John Singer Sargent, who made him look blobby and diffident. Reed, however, proved equal to even this setback. “Well,” he said on taking his first look at the painting, “I hope my enemies are satisfied.”