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The Life and Times of a Well-Spoken Speaker

Thomas Reed was a great and honorable House speaker -- and he killed the filiibuster.

By From the October 2011 issue

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Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster
By James Grant
(Simon & Schuster, 426 pages, $28) 

Long before there was an Energy Czar, an Economic Czar, an Environmental Czar or a Homeland Security Czar, there was a Congressional Czar. And did he ever look the part: Thomas Brackett Reed (1839–1902)--nicknamed "Czar Reed" by his envious, mostly Democratic political foes--was a hulking Maine Civil War veteran who served 12 terms as a Republican member of Congress from 1878 to 1899, three of them as a masterful, reforming Speaker of the House. Standing "well over 6 feet tall" and weighing in at around 300 pounds, with his bald head, pink cheeks, poker face and piercing gaze, he looked very much like a mustachioed manatee with an attitude.

Reed was also genuinely but unostentatiously intellectual (his personal library exceeded 5,000 volumes, 500 of them in French, along with 35 bound volumes of Punch), an arch foe of humbug, and possessed of genuine wit, qualities less than conspicuous in recent speakers of both parties. And, as author James Grant reminds us in his soundly researched and engagingly written new biography of Reed, he was "the acknowledged master of the impromptu five-minute speech and of the cutting, 10-second remark." Were he with us today, Speaker Reed would surely have excelled at the art of the sound bite.

On one occasion, when a Democratic colleague "was rash enough to quote Henry Clay's line about rather being right than president," Speaker Reed shot back the assurance that, "The gentleman needn't worry. He will never be either." Harry Truman's oft-quoted line that "A statesman is a politician who's been dead 10 or 15 years," is actually a direct steal from Reed's earlier, more polished quip that "A statesman is a successful politician who is dead." Reflecting on his chances of winning a long-shot bid for the presidential nomination in 1896, Reed said of his fellow Republicans, "They can do worse. And they probably will."

Which they did, nominating the decent but distinctly mediocre William McKinley instead. It was the McKinley presidency--but not McKinley personally-- that would ultimately lead to Reed's voluntary withdrawal from political life. As the call for "American Empire" went up, and zealous interventionists like young Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt--a former Reed protégé--undermined McKinley's efforts to avoid war with Spain from within, Reed was a lonely voice of reason, questioning the need for war, the feasibility of bringing the blessings of democracy to a decayed Spanish colonial backwater like Cuba, and doubting the practicality--not to mention the morality--of America joining the European scramble for overseas colonies. In his heart of hearts, he probably agreed with Republican senator Richard F. Pettigrew of South Dakota who told journalist Arthur Dunn, "I don't care anything about Cuba. The island would not be worth anything unless it was sunk for 24 hours to get rid of its present population..."

But Reed's calm, cold-blooded approach was no match for the jingoist propaganda barrages of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and glory-hunting politicians and policy wonks. To cite a particularly glaring example, on one occasion, when Teddy Roosevelt's more level-headed superior, Navy Secretary John D. Long, spent a day away from the office leaving T.R. in charge of day-to-day operations, he returned to find, in his own words, that "Roosevelt, in his precipitate way, has come very near causing more of an explosion than happened to the [USS] Maine." As author Grant describes it: "In one unsupervised day at the office, the Rough Rider-to-be had ordered up ammunition, directed ships hither and yon and asked Congress for emergency legislation with which to augment the naval ranks. It was a full-scale, eight-hour, one-man preparedness program..." With chutzpah that even the boldest neocon in the Rumsfeld Pentagon would have envied, Teddy had even secretly cabled Admiral George Dewey in Hong Kong ordering him to keep the American Pacific fleet "full of coal" in gleeful expectation of "offensive operations in Philippine Islands." Paul Wolfowitz, eat your heart out.

Unaffected by the war fever, Reed's slogan was "Empire can wait," but, for better or worse, it did not. America won an--in every sense of the word--"bully" victory over a militarily feeble Spain and acquired Caribbean and Pacific colonies, also snatching up the independent Kingdom of Hawaii along the way. Overwhelmingly reelected by his Maine constituents to the 56th Congress in 1898, Reed chose to voluntarily give up the speakership by resigning because, 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." It was the only honorable course for an honorable man to take, and Reed took it. One can only wonder how many--if any--members of today's Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle would be capable of doing the same.

REED'S GREAT AND LASTING LEGACY, though not well-known to the general public, was his major and historic transformation of the House of Representatives from a passive-aggressive institution into an emphatically active one. He did so by killing the so-called "filibuster," as Mr. Grant succinctly explains in his preface:

Until what were known as the Reed Rules took force in 1890, the House was hostage to its own willful minority. If those members chose to obstruct, they would simply refuse to answer their names when the clerk called the roll. In sufficient numbers, sitting mute, they could stymie the House, which, under the Constitution, requires a quorum to function. Present bodily, they were absent procedurally....[Reed] transformed the House by declaring those members present who were actually in the House chamber, whether or not they chose to acknowledge the fact by opening their mouths. Democrats excoriated him for doing so…[but] Reed lived to see both himself and his rules vindicated, the Democrats themselves coming grudgingly to adopt them in 1894.

Whether viewed from right, left, or center, this was a tremendous victory for effective governance. At a time when America was becoming an economic super power and a vast laboratory for democratic social process, the Reed Rules made it easier for winning legislative majorities to act on the issues they had run on. Sometimes the legislative results would be good, sometimes bad, as continues to be the case today. But Congress could now play a positive role in governing rather than a purely obstructive one. And if any particular congressional majority used this power in ways the voters opposed, it could be--and often has been--voted out of power in the next biennial general elections as happened in 2010…all thanks to Czar Thomas the First.

Grant serves as an informative and entertaining guide, steering us through the key issues of Reed's day. As one would expect of the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, he is particularly helpful in unraveling the complications of the great currency debate that then raged between advocates of the gold standard, silver, and "easy" paper money, but he covers the entire field with equal ease and also brings alive Reed the man. A clever but honest mix of small-town New Englander and cultivated intellectual, Reed delighted in a breakfast of codfish balls, beans, and potatoes, but his fond descriptions of them in his diary were written in his fluent French. Mark Twain, who shared his sense of humor, would become a fast friend, and the usually partisan Reed would confide to his diary that he liked Democratic President Grover Cleveland, another responsible, personally honest politician, "a lot." Right or wrong, his strongly protectionist tariff policy was motivated as much by his desire to protect the lives and livelihood of American workers as it was by his party's pro-business status.

A doting father and dutiful husband, he was an early supporter of giving women the vote--ironically, his wife was against it--and he was a staunch foe of racism and bigotry. Reed also had a discerning eye for the ladies, including the charming Mrs. Hillyer, a Washington hostess whose Massachusetts Avenue mansion now houses the Cosmos Club, an institution where this reviewer has spent many a satisfying hour in convivial conversation with the sort of company Czar Reed would have enjoyed. The Speaker admired Mrs. Hillyer's striking figure as much as her fluent conversational French: "She has a waist so tiny as to excite a strong feeling of curiosity," he confided to his diary. "I would like to see for myself how she is made."

It would be fun to swap a few stories over drinks with the ghost of Thomas Reed in the present-day Hillyer Mansion, comparing notes on the Washington politics of his era and ours, and perhaps even finding out if he was ever able to see for himself exactly how well-made the shapely Mrs. Hillyer was.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.