tv Life and Career of Senator Alben Barkley CSPAN November 9, 2014 11:11am-11:56am EST
>> it is a glorious service. it is service for the country. the call comments to every citizen. it is an unending struggle to make and keep governments representative. >> he is probably the most important political figure in wisconsin history. important andt history of the 20th century in the united states. he was a reforming governor. he defined what progressivism is. he was one of the first to use progressivism to self identify. he was a united take senator. he was recognized by his peers in the 1950's as one of the five -- senators and american history. he was an appointed world war i. he advocated for free speech. he was about the people.
in the era after the civil war, america changed radically from a nation of small farmers and small producers and small lateacturers, and by the 1870's, 1880's, 1890's, we had concentrations of wealth. we have growing inequality. we have concern about the influence of money and government. he spent the later part of 1890's giving speeches all over wisconsin. if you wanted a speaker for your club or your group, he would give a speech. he went to county fairs. he went to every kind of event that you could imagine. he built a reputation for himself. by 1900, he was ready to run for governor, advocating on behalf of the people. he had two issues. one, the direct primary. no more selecting candidates in
convention. two, stop the interests are , specifically the railroads. for all our events on c-span2 on book tv. the 2015 student cam video competition is underway. it is open to all middle and high school to create a 5-7 minute documentary on the theme the three branches in you, showing how our policy, law, or action of the federal government has affected you or your community. 200 cash prizes for students and teachers, totaling more than $100,000. for a list of rules and how to get started, go to student cam.org. c-span's veterans day covered begins tuesday morning at
8:30 eastern. 10:00, the annual uso gala featuring martin dempsey. live at 11:00 for the traditional wreathlaying ceremony at the tombs of the unknown. a discussion on veterans mental health issues. later, selections from this year's white house middle of honor ceremonies. out in berkeley, a democrat, served as senate majority leader from 1937 to 1947. he served as minority leader from 1947 to 1949. next, senate minority leader mitch mcconnell reflects on the career of senator barkley. he is now the minority leader and is expected to be the majority leader for the next congress. this 45 minute program is a series of talks mitch mcconnell about former senators from kentucky.
[applause] >> thank you, linda. it is great to see all of you. i enjoyed my tour of the museum and i recommend you do it. i've been doing a series of speeches over the last couple of years on some of the more significant members of the united states senate from kentucky. we've had a bunch of them because we came into the union in 1792. but honestly, some were way more significant than others. and the man i'm going to speak to you about today was by any estimate one of a handful of the most significant senators we've ever sent to washington. i've been pleased to become a friend of his grandson, alben, who is sitting here to my left. i had an opportunity take he and his wife around the capitol when they were up there a couple of years ago.
and he noted that i had in my office in the capitol, the leader's office, two portraits up on the wall, one of alben barkley and one of john sherman cooper. and of course barkley was quite bored frankly after serving as vice president and going into private life, didn't like it. and defeated john sherman cooper in 1954. so their careers intersected in a competitive way toward the and of barkley's life. so cooper was my early role model and so those are the two portraits that i have up in my office. some people are surprised i had a democratic majority leader in my office. but i thought he was of that significance that i was willing to reach across the aisle in a
bipartisan gesture and welcome barkley to my office. on these remarks i've done on senators, they are a little bit like a college lecture. this is not about current events. this is about the past. and so whatever your views are of what is going on right now, what i think we ought to do today is turn off current affairs and go back and talk about one of our most significant figures in kentucky ian u.s. history. professor tom appleton and jim clouter have contributed to this as of course has alben barkley the third, who i've already discussed. our commonwealth has had a rich heritage and contributed much to our nation's development. as such, what i'm going to do today is convey a bit of that
political history through the lives of some of the distinguished individuals who served as senators from our state. that's what i've been doing over a period of time here. but the subject of today's speech is alben barkley. he affords particular insight into a frequently misunderstood government institution, and that is party leadership in the united states senate. barkley was as we all know leader of the democrats in the senate from 1937 until 1949. in fact, only three men have held that position longer, mike mansfield of montana, joe robinson of arkansas, and robert bird of west virginia. barkley enjoyed public speaking, perhaps a bit too much at times. once, during a speech, he lost track of time and was caught quizzically looking at his watch.
barkley tried to figure out how long he had been speaking when a listener shouted, barkley if your watch has stopped running, there is a calendar on the wall behind you. [laughter] barkley quickly drew his speech to a close following that remark. hopefully, i won't prompt any of you to look at your watch or at least not to look at a calendar. it's entirely fitting of course to have this talk take place in paducah, barkley's long time home. and as one biographer has noted, barkley's name has become synonymous with this city. alben barkley was born literally, literally, in a log cabin on his father's tobacco farm in 1877 not far from here, in graves county. the barkley family was not a family of means, to put it mildly. young alben grew up chopping wood, harvesting tobacco, and plowing fields. this hardscrabble upbringing
instilled in him the importance of hard work. swapping stories with his father's hired hands he also developed the fun-loving storytelling persona for which he later became quite famous. as he got older, he worked odd jobs to make ends meet. although he didn't graduate from high school, he studied at marvin college located in clinton, kentucky while working as a janitor to pay for his school expenses. marvin no longer exists today but reportededly one of its campus buildings held a sign boasting "barkley swept here." [laughter] next came his study of law. and barkley was admitted to the bar in 1901. that same year marked another important development in his life.
he met dorothy brower, a paducah native, and the two would soon wed. a happy marriage. they raised three children, david, marion, and laura, in a very lively household. one of their homes where barkley lived from 1937 until 1956 as we all know was called angles. as many of you know, it's still a historical landmark here in paducah. the law led barkley to discover his true passion, which as we all know was politics. his political career started with a race for county attorney here in mccracken county. he bought a one-eyed horse named dick who transported barkley across the whole county during the campaign. the secret to barkley's success was less his mode of transportation than his personality.
barkley truly enjoyed and empathized with people. as lyndon johnson recalled, he had a genuine and unaffected interest in the problems of others. johnson observed that people rejoiced with him when he was happy, mourned with him when he was sad. and at all times they reposed in him the trust and confidence that are accorded only to a very close and dear personal friend. at 27 years old the young lawyer toppled the incumbent and easily won the general election for county attorney in 1905. barkley then won election as mccracken county judge, essentially the same position we call county judge executive today, before going to the house of representatives in 1912. in the house, barkley was not
only an avid progressive and devotee of president woodrow wilson, but he befriended young lawmakers by the names of sam rayburn of texas and pat harrison of mississippi. re-elected six times to the house, barkley moved to the senate in 1926. i would note that his campaign manager for that senate race was none other than fred vincent who would later become chief justice of the united states. it was in the senate where barkley became widely aclaimed as a first-rate storyteller. many recall senator barkley saying, a good story is like fine kentucky bourbon. it improves with age and if you don't use it too much, it will never hurt anyone. [laughter] one contemporary described his ability as a raconteur as follows.
his restrained postures, the finesse with which he takes tricks with his moderate southern accent, his facility in coining a word if the immediately essential one is not in the dictionary, the eloquence of his eyebrows, his honest grin and his basic bearing as a gentleman and scholar all contributed to his captivating storytelling. now, his tendency to create words to suit his needs was evidenced in an address he once gave to the national press club. barkley described senators as primadonnas -- that would be true today -- but noted that the press core was even more primadonnical. in 1932, barkley was returned to the senate, the first kentucky senator to be re-elected in the 20th century. the next year he was chosen as assistant majority leader.
whip.ition we now call wit he served with joe robinson of arkansas. now barkley was a strong new dealer and a loyal lieutenant of robinson's. the kentuckian even supported franklin roosevelt's court packing plan, a scheme to exand the membership of the supreme court so roosevelt could tilt the court's political balance more to his liking. this was a center piece of roosevelt's agenda after his landslide reelection in 1936. its boldness reflecting the huge, huge democratic majority returned in both houses after the election of 1936. listen to this, my friends, when the 75th congress began in 1937, the democrats held a whopping 76 of 96 seats. there were only 48 states then.
76 of 96 seats. if you've ever been to the senate, you know there is an aisle down the middle and the republicans sit on one side and the democrats sit on the other. there were so many democrats after the election of 1936, they couldn't get them all on one side of the chamber. so they brought them over on the republican side in the back and cherokee strip. they said they were off the reservation. but as is often the case happens when you have a very large majority, the majority begins to splinter, and the party was indeed badly divided. as one columnist said at the time, overwhelming majorities, like oversized amoebas, tend to split, and that is just exactly what happened. about half of the democratic caucus supported roosevelt's new deal policies and the other half frequently undermined them.
the divisions within the caucus finally became fully exposed when fdr proposed the court packing plan. was the straw that broke the camel's back. people had had enough, and it split wide open. in 1937, due to the strain of trying to manage the court packing legislation, majority leader robinson died of a heart attack, clearing a way for barkley potentially to become leader. frequently politics abhors a vacuum. so i'll just add to my prepared text the way the campaign unfolded. robinson dies of a heart attack. they put the entire senate on a train headed to arkansas. and the democrats politicked all the way to the funeral and all the way back, to see who would succeed joe robinson. so, as i said, politics abhors a
vacuum. the timing and manner of barkley's election to the top spot would prove highly challenging and would hamper barkley's effectiveness as leader for years to come. in this leader's race, one faction lined up behind barkley, the other behind his old house colleague, the more conservative pat harrison of mississippi. roosevelt preferred barkley over harrison because barkley was more supportive of the new deal policies. in fact the day after robinson's death, roosevelt sent barkley a letter that began, my dear alben. in the letter roosevelt refered to barkley correctly but cheekily as the acting majority leader. fdr also dispatched aids to exert pressure on senators to vote for barkley. one week after robinson's death,
all 75 democrats, one of them was an independent, all 75 democrats in addition to barkley met in the caucus to vote. they voted by dropping their ballots in an old panama hat of virginia senator carter glass. this prompted a quip about senate democrats trying to ensure the secret ballot by using a glass hat. senator barkley won by one vote. one vote. 37 to 36. but, he lost much more with his colleagues. because many senators took offense at the president's influence in barkley's election. and barkley finally paid something of a price for it. his colleagues granted him the title of majority leader but not
the accompanying authority and respect, viewing him as fdr's man rather than the senate leader. and that's how he began his tenure as majority leader. now the job of majority leader is a tough job. i'd like to try it out, by the way. [laughter] but it's a tough job. if your party controls the white house the majority leader usually tries to enact the president's programs and protect his priorities. that is much harder in a second presidential term than a first one in which the incoming president has a full head of steam and strong popular support. roosevelt was not only in his second term when barkley was elected leader but was politically damaged from the unsuccessful court packing fight. so let me digress for a moment just to discuss the position barkley assumed.
the senate has always had leaders, but leaders with a lower case l. unlike the speaker of the house, the jobs of senate majority leader and senate minority leader are nowhere to be found in the constitution. the positions are in fact only about a century old. henry clay, john c. calhoun, and daniel webster were senate leaders but never senate majority or minority leaders for the simple fact the positions did not then exist. as then-professor woodrow wilson wrote in the late 19 century, in the senate no one may speak for his party as well as for himself. no one exercises the special trust of acknowledged leadership. so you had a lot of different people who were prominent but the position of leader at the time did not exist. now the origins of majority and
minority leader are the product of several historical factors. perhaps the main reason the two positions developed was in response to the rise of the activist president. that is to say that the office of party leader developed largely in response to the need for the senate to be able to work with and react to the president's legislative agenda. and this notion really began to take hold in the early part of the 20th century, right around world war i. in the latter half of the 19th century, the agenda for the senate floor was set by the majority party within what is called its caucus, which is a meeting of the senate party members. in the late 19th and early 20th century each party began to elect caucus chairmen. but these caucus chairmen were not responsible for setting the legislative agenda. scheduling what bills would be
brought up and in what order, enforcing party discipline, managing legislation on the floor, or coordinating with the president. all attributes of modern senate leaders. today, there is not universal agreement on who was the first majority or minority leader. democrat john worth kern of indiana who served at the beginning of the wilson administration is often thought to be the first. his tenure is important because he was elected as head of the senate democrats in large part because he shared wilson's progressive views and was thought capable of shepherding through wilson's legislative agenda. these reasons for his appointment were actually groundbreaking at the time. what seems ordinary to us was groundbreaking at the time. yet even with the novelty of his selection and subsequent success, the term majority
leader, as opposed to caucus chairman, was not used in an official document until 1920, with democrat oscar undererwood. in 1925, charles curtis became the first republican so named. thus by the mid 1920's, the position of senate majority and minority leaders had become formalized. but even then the positions did not resemble the office folks know today. for example, senator harry reid and i currently occupy the two front aisle desks of the senate chamber on each side of the divide down the middle. we occupy those as the majority leader and we don't use the term minority in the senate, the republican leader. but the democratic leader did not occupy the center aisle until joe robinson did so in 1927, and the republican leader
did not do so until a full decade after that. before then, those desks had simply been assigned based on seniority. so today the main formal power that the majority leader and the leader of the minority enjoy is the power of prior recognition, the power of prior recognition. that means if a number of senators are all seeking to address the senate to speak or introduce a bill or amendment, the majority leader will be called on first and the leader of the minority will be called on second. that is prior recognition over all the other 98 senators. now as a practical matter, that means the majority leader and the minority leader enjoy a leg up on the other 98 in trying to do what they want to get done. and being seated at the front of
the chammer helps ensure the presiding officer sees the two leaders seeking to address the senate. just like having a desk in the front center aisle, the principle of prior recognition is actually fairly modern and you won't find it written in the senate rules. it's based on a senate precedent that dates from 1937 when the majority leader was a man named, you guessed it, alben barkley. that year, the vice president as presiding officer announced that hence forth he would recognize the majority leader first and the minority leader second. it is upon this precedent that a great deal of the power of the majority leader and minority leader rests today. that simple thing, first recognition or second recognition. now i would note this incident is one of the lesser known and lesser appreciated highlights of barkley's tenure as leader. but barkley's early days as
leader particularly in 1937 were not easy. he kept finding himself on the losing end of votes. even worse, washington journalists witnessed he was unable to move his colleagues and dubbed him bumbling barkley. gradually however, barkley gained trust and respect. in contrast to robinson's heavy-handed leadership style, barkley often sat down with colleagues, disarmed them with humor, and made his case. the year after his difficult reelection to the senate leadership, he faced another tough electoral challenge. this time right here in kentucky. 1938 was a true clash of the titans in the democratic primary. barkley was challenged by happy chandler. i bet a lot of you have forgotten that. president roosevelt, here was barkley the majority leader of
the senate, and happy chandler, the governor, and the sitting governor challenged barkley in the primary in 1938. president roosevelt was scheduled to visit kentucky to support barkley in his re-election effort. part of the visit involved a motorcade up in northern kentucky where fdr would deliver a speech. chandler was invited to attend the event being the state's executive. it was planned that president roosevelt, barkley, and chandler would ride to the event in an open top car. fdr entered the vehicle first. barkley according to his own account was assigned to enter second to sit next to roosevelt, followed by chandler. as barkley recalled, chandler leapt over the president alarming the secret
, service, to ensure he was in the middle position seated next to the popular roosevelt. i've seen those photographs and if you don't have them at the museum, you need to get it. it's got happy chandler beaming sitting next to fdr. and barkley looking rather chagrined sitting on the other side. once there, roosevelt joined them on the stage in front of 50,000 bystanders. that's back when politics would draw a crowd. fdr embraced barkley publicly, saying, "i have no doubt governor chandler would make a great senator from kentucky, the president said, but i think he would be the first to acknowledge as a very junior member of the senate, it would take him many years to match the national knowledge and experience and leadership in the affairs of our nation of that son of kentucky of whom the whole nation is proud, alben barkley." now, the race took many different turns, including chandler accusing a barkley supporter of poisoning him with
tainted drinking water. you thought politics was tough now. but alben barkley beat a sitting governor by 70,000 votes which is quite impressive and won the general election. so following barkley's reelection in 1938, war clouds began to darken over europe. it was in this setting that barkley began to step into his own as senate majority leader. historians rightly note the vital role he played in enacting the first peacetime military draft, passing the linde lease lend lease act, and repealing the arms embargo act and the neutrality act, all of these leading up to our entry into world war ii. but being an effective senator is not just measured in
legislative output. it can also be measured in creative thinking. that was just what barkley did when he suggested that an english gentleman speak before a joint session of congress a few weeks after pearl harbor. that gentleman was winston churchill, and he delivered a famous rousing address that went to solidifying the relationship with britain during the war. being an effective senator can also be exhibited through oversight function. following the attack on pearl harbor, there were wild rumors that fdr and the senior civilian leadership had been aware of the attack beforehand and had done nothing to prevent japan from attacking hawaii, in hopes of drawing america into the war. barkley sponsored a resolution to investigate the pearl harbor disaster and served as chairman of the investigative committee. the majority report signed by
barkley and several republican members of the panel determined that the senior civilian leadership did not have insight but that the ultimate responsibility for non-provoked act of aggression rested with the japanese. his actions helped set the record straight about an attack that understandably had triggered very strong emotions from the public. for a senate party leader to be effective, he must have a good relationship with the president of his own party. barkley got along well with roosevelt, the senator's humor often bringing welcome relief to a president burdened with the pressures of war. on one occasion he was consulting with roosevelt in the white house when he recalled a story. it involved a reverend who had apparently delivered a remarkable sermon. one parishioner approached the
reverend afterward and exclaimed, reverend, that was a damn good sermon you preached this morning. the reverend, somewhat taken aback, replied, i appreciate your complement but not your language. the parishioner undeterred continued, it was such a damn good sermon that i put $100 in the collection plate. the reverend blurted out, the hell you did. [laughter] roosevelt's laughter was apparently heard by the secret service all the way down the hall. so as the senate majority leader barkley not only enjoyed an easy friendship with the president, he eagerly embraced the responsibility to lead the charge for the administration's legislation. but sometimes the president took
the loyal leader for granted. ended when senator barkley dramatically broke with his beloved president on a matter of principle. the principle barkley made his stand on is one dear to my heart. that is keeping taxes low. by february, 1944, america was well into the war of the axis powers, and president roosevelt wanted to raise taxes to pay for it. he requested a tax increase of -- this sounds like nothing day -- but he requested a tax increase of more than $10 billion, a considerable amount of money back in 1944. the majority leader knew the congress did not have nearly the appetite for higher taxes that the president did. but barkley did the best he could for the president, and successfully steered through a bill to raise revenues by $2.3 billion instead of $10 billion. barkley pleaded with roosevelt
to accept the bill as the best he could get, and and to sign it. but the president brushed aside the leader's advice, and vetoed the bill. roosevelt's veto message really stung senator barkley. it was petty and personal. the president wrote that having asked the congress for loaf of bread, the final bill was a small piece of crust. his next words struck hardest of all. he declared the final bill was not a tax bill but a tax relief bill, providing relief not for the needy, but for the greedy. after years of devotion and support for the president, often at the cost of the respect of some of his own colleagues, this insult to his integrity as a legislator, a leader, and a disciple of the new deal was simply too much for barkley. in other words, he had it up to here. the next day, still overcome by
indignation, barkley dictated this speech to his secretary and marched out to the senate floor. word had leaked of what was coming. journalists crowded galleries, and many senators took their seats to listen to their leader. barkley's voice cracked with emotion as he related his history of steadfast support for the roosevelt administration. this is what he said. i daresay that during the past seven years of my tenure as majority leader, i have carried that flag over rougher terrain than was ever traversed by any previous majority leader. but, there is something more precious to me than any honor that can be conferred upon me by the senate of the united states. or by the people of kentucky. or by the president of this republic. and that is the approval of my own conscience and my own self-respect.
that self-respect and the rectitude of that conscience, i propose on this occasion to maintain. and with that, he resigned as majority leader. right there on the floor. barkley had always believed the leader must try to support the president's position. unable to give that, stepping down, he felt, was his only choice. because he had stood up to the president, and defended the senate, nearly every lawmaker in the chamber rose for thunderous ovation. that was the senate's reaction. to the speech and the resignation. the gallery stood as one to applaud as well. vice president henry wallace called it the most dramatic occasion in the u.s. senate over which i have ever presided. roosevelt recognized that he was beaten, and wrote a letter urging barkley not to resign. it was unnecessary. the next day, the democrats
unanimously reelected barkley to the leader's post. the senate turned back roosevelt's veto on the tax bill, 72 to 14. and this time, barkley led his colleagues to win the vote. now, senator elbert thomas of utah summed up the newfound power and prestige of the majority leader. this is what he said. by his one-vote margin in the 1937 contest, when he was first elected leader, the impression was given, and it has been the impression ever since, that he spoke to us for the president. now, he speaks for us to the president. barkley had forever earned the respect and trust of his senate colleagues. that is a crucial point to remember, regarding senate party leadership. at the end of the day, a
legislative party leader is accountable first and foremost to the state that elected him, and to his fellow senators, and only then to the president. barkley's principled stance did not come without a cost. he had regularly been on a short list of selections as the democratic candidate for vice president. following the break with roosevelt, a coolness emerged between the two of them. the result was that when fdr was considering vice presidential candidates in 1944, barkley was removed from consideration. harry truman instead was selected, and we all know what happened. he was president a few months later, when roosevelt died in 1945. given roosevelt's ill health, barkley's stance in defense of the senate may well have cost him the presidency.
throughout all of these challenges, few people knew the barkley was also dealing with his wife dorothy's failing health. beginning in 1944, dorothy required constant medical attention. mounting medical expenses put the barkleys in a tough financial situation. in addition to his day job as a lawmaker, senator barkley continued to accept speaking engagements across the country, often requiring him to work and travel through the night to make extra money to pay for her health expenses. dorothy passed away in 1947, dealing a heavy blow to barkley. as one would expect, barkley used his high position to help the commonwealth. particularly western kentucky. the story goes that the gaseous diffusion plant was placed in paducah because of alben barkley. dottie barkley, granddaughter of the senator, explained how the
plant was selected to be in paducah. granddaddy just muscled it through, she said. he was best friends with speaker of the house sam rayburn. most believe without barkley's leadership that has long-standing relationships, the plant would never have been selected to be placed in kentucky. other stories about barkley's hidden hand, assistance to kentucky, abound. in september, 1942, for example, barkley reportedly encourage the official location of fort campbell to be in kentucky. even though 2/3 of the installation was located in tennessee. barkley's influence apparently helped determine that the official location of fort campbell would be forever where the post office was, which just happened to be a few miles on our side of the border. although fort campbell straddles the kentucky and tennessee state line to this day, we in the commonwealth all know that fort campbell is a kentucky
installation. in 1948, after more than a decade as either senate majority or minority leader, the democratic convention selected barkley to be truman's vice presidential running mate. two months after the surprise truman/barkley election triumph, barkley took the oath of office as the 35th vice president of the united states. some of you may have heard of the term veep, especially recently due to the hit hbo television show of the same name. interestingly, barkley was the first recipient of this nickname, and he credited the creation of it to his grandson stephen truitt. as the story goes, his grandson thought that the official title "the vice president" was too much of a tongue twister. he said, gramps, vp stands for vice president.
why not stick in a couple of little e's, and call it veep? the name stuck, and has been used as the nickname for vice presidents ever since. despite the title change from senator to vice president, or veep, barkley remained close to his beloved senate. he was in fact the last vice president to spend most of his time in presiding up in the senate. even as vice president, barkley's humor never left him. once, while barkley was presiding over the senate, tennessee senator kenneth mckellar protested vigorously against the actions of illinois senator scott lucas. the republican senator having committed the unpardonable sin of yawning during mckellar's remarks. barkley deftly defused the situation, ruling from the chair, "the yawn of the senator
from illinois will be stricken from the record." in 1949, the widowed vice president barkley tended a party and met a guest by the name of jane hadley. vivacious and attractive, she caught the attention of the vice president. after four months of courtship, they were wed. barkley was undeterred by jane's political affiliations. prior to meeting the vice president, jane had worked for the 1940 gop presidential nominee wendell wilkie. as the story goes, jane's milkman at one point expressed his support for president roosevelt. this is her milkman. jane countered with a note saying, no wilkie, no milky. [laughter] despite their initial political differences, jane saw side of barkley that the public did not
usually see. she saw that his humor masked a very diligent and driven man. you are not quite the happy-go-lucky fellow you pretend to be, she commented. you are so much more serious than most people realize. after four years as vice president, barkley retired from politics, seemingly forever. but he longed to return to the senate chamber, so he ran for and won reelection to the senate in 1954. ousting another big-name candidate, republican john sherman cooper. barkley returned to the senate as the junior senator from kentucky. two years into his second tenure in the senate, barkley was doing what he loved, speaking to a crowd of students at a mock convention at washington and lee university.
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