When two old bulls butted heads on Capitol Hill in the early days of the Kennedy administration, the confrontation was dramatic — and unusual.
On one side stood House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, a Democrat who was elected to Congress in 1912, the same year Woodrow Wilson won his first term in the White House. Rayburn, 79, had been speaker longer than anyone else and was a key ally of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Now he was coming to the aid of newly elected President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
On the other side was Rep. Howard Smith, a conservative Democrat from Northern Virginia who came to the House in 1931 and led the House Rules Committee. Working with Southern Democratic allies and Republicans, Smith, 78, blocked civil rights, housing and education legislation favored by liberal Democrats. Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson called him a “dictator.”
Rayburn wanted to expand the Rules Committee by three seats to put Smith and his allies in the minority and make it easier for administration proposals to get a vote on the House floor. Kennedy regarded the possibility of defeat as a potentially “disastrous blow” to the prestige of his new administration, which was less than two weeks old, Chalmers F. Roberts reported in The Washington Post.
On Jan. 31, Rayburn — short, stocky and bald as a cue ball — dueled on the House floor with Smith, who Pearson thought resembled “Sherlock Holmes in a frock coat.” It was a “do-or-die fight,” according to Post reporter Richard L. Lyons, and the galleries were packed with spectators.
The roll-call vote that followed the one-hour debate produced additional drama. “For forty minutes, as the clerk tolled off the names, the tally seesawed,” the New York Times reported. “There was dead silence as each vote was sounded and repeated.” In the end, Rayburn won 217 to 212 — gaining a victory on what Lyons described as “the most important action of this Congress.”
Clashes of this sort were not unprecedented during Rayburn’s tenure as speaker. But they were rare. The plain-spoken Texan preferred private persuasion to public confrontation. When the gloves came off, however, the man known on Capitol Hill as “Sam” or “Mr. Sam” was a formidable foe.
Rayburn’s 17-year tenure as speaker was interrupted twice, when Republicans took control of the House in 1946 and 1952. But he was so highly regarded by his Democratic colleagues that he returned to the speaker’s chair after Democrats returned to the majority in 1948 and 1954. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was elected speaker Thursday, she became the first to return to the job since Rayburn.
Born in Tennessee in 1882, Rayburn moved with his family to Fannin County, Tex., when he was 5 years old. When he was 12, he heard a speech by Rep. Joseph Bailey (D-Tex.) and decided he wanted to be a member of Congress. He was proud of his Confederate heritage (his father fought with Robert E. Lee) but was not, in Lyons’s phrase, a “professional Southerner.” He was a staunch Democrat who counted Republican leader Joseph Martin Jr. of Massachusetts among his friends.
While many lawmakers see Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to the presidency, Rayburn aspired for most of his career to nothing more than serving in Congress. He had a reputation for honesty. “Rayburn,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin, “was the real thing.”
While he was an active legislator in the early days of the New Deal, it was as a leader that Rayburn made his mark. After his death on Nov. 16, 1961, The Post observed in an editorial that Rayburn’s clout “has been felt in Washington for a longer period than has that of any other figure in recent American history.”
The Times put it another way: “It is as though a part of the Capitol had fallen down.”
Rayburn languished as a backbencher during the 1920s as Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, but his influence grew when Roosevelt came to town. Rayburn became chairman of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and, guided by what author Booth Mooney described as a “rural Texan’s inborn suspicion of Wall Street,” led the way for regulation of the stock market. In 1935, he successfully fought for legislation that broke up public utility holding companies.
Rayburn swapped legislating for leadership in 1937 when he became the House majority leader. Three years later, following the death of William Bankhead of Alabama, Rayburn ascended to the speaker’s chair.
An early test of Rayburn’s leadership came in the summer of 1941 as the Soviet Union and Britain stood against Nazi Germany in the early phases of World War II. When Roosevelt, with a worried eye on the war, asked Congress to declare a national emergency that would extend the service of Army and National Guard troops and enhance U.S. preparedness, the House resisted. Rayburn buttonholed wavering lawmakers, imploring them to support the measure because “it means a lot to me,” according to writer John G. Leyden. It won, 203 to 202.
Rayburn “kept the U.S. Army intact to fight a war that was only four months away,” Leyden wrote. “Mr. Sam, up close and personal, was a hard man to refuse.”
A key to his power was a nondescript room on the first floor of the Capitol known as “the Board of Education.” After the House adjourned for the day, Rayburn presided over an informal gathering that would include congressional power brokers, and, on occasion, members of the Supreme Court and Cabinet members. Lyndon B. Johnson and Truman numbered among those frequently in attendance.
The agenda at these gatherings included “light drinking and informal politicking,” Rayburn biographer D.B. Hardeman wrote in Life Magazine in 1961. Lloyd Bentsen, whose career in Washington began with his election to the House in 1948, recalled in an oral history that the gatherings allowed those present to “meet after the day’s session and talk about some of the issues that were before the Congress.” The Board of Education, Bentsen said, “was more of a socializing time than anything else.”
But there was more to it. “There is shoptalk there,” the Times’s William White wrote in 1949, “but of awfully important things.”
Rayburn’s guests were sworn to secrecy about these meetings — a notion that would offend modern-day believers in open government, Carleton concedes. “It was, literally, a smoked-filled room. On the other hand, it made things possible.”
No one understood that better than Rayburn’s fellow Texan, Johnson, who, as Senate majority leader, attended as often as possible. LBJ made a show of deferring to the House leader, Johnson biographer Robert Caro writes, kissing Rayburn on his forehead and calling him “Mr. Sam” or “Mr. Speaker,” or, more unctuously, greeting him as “my beloved.”
Behind the scenes, Rayburn went to bat for Johnson in 1957 as the Senate majority leader staked his political future on passage of a civil rights bill, Caro wrote. The bill passed in late August and was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Sept. 9, becoming the first major piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress since the end of Reconstruction.
Although not a leader on civil rights questions, Rayburn “didn’t go along with the firebrand stuff” favored by some of his Southern Democratic colleagues, Carleton said. In 1948, as Southerners floated the idea of opposing Truman’s nomination for a full term, Rayburn said nothing publicly and deprived the movement of an important endorsement, White wrote in the Times. In private, Rayburn denounced the idea “with the explosive monosyllables of an old Anglo-Saxon glossary of epithet,” White added.
Rayburn’s low-key leadership style was well suited for Capitol Hill in the decades following World War II, when lawmakers stayed in town while Congress was in session and formed friendships across the aisle, Carleton said. Television was in its infancy, and there were no TV cameras in the House chambers.
It was an era when the governing ethos on Capitol Hill was “to get along, you go along.” In other words, it was nothing like the media-driven, fractious and ideologically polarized body over which Pelosi presides.
In one respect, though, Rayburn faced a challenge not unlike that awaiting the veteran California lawmaker. “The House,” Lyons wrote in 1961, “is a bucket of eels at best.”
Read more on Retropolis: