In 1955, the Senate established a special committee to select five outstanding former senators for the special honor of having their portraits permanently displayed in the Capitol's Senate Reception Room. The committee chairman, Senator John F. Kennedy, asked 160 nationally prominent scholars with special knowledge of Senate operations and American political history to nominate five candidates. When committee staff tallied the experts' recommendations, the senator at the top of their list was Nebraska progressive Republican George Norris—best remembered as the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority and author of the Constitution's 20th Amendment.
Born in 1861, Norris grew up in Ohio and Indiana, but moved to Nebraska in his early 20s to establish a law practice. In 1902, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and quickly gained a reputation for his independence. He instigated a revolt in 1910 of insurgent Republicans and Democrats against the powerful House Speaker Joseph Cannon. These reformers won a vote to deny the Speaker membership on the House Rules Committee and thereby democratized the process of committee appointments.
Norris began his 30-year Senate career in 1913. Although he supported many of Woodrow Wilson's progressive domestic policies, he was a vocal opponent of that president's foreign policies before and after the First World War, and joined other "irreconcilables" in opposing the Treaty of Versailles. During the Republican administrations of the 1920s, Norris pressed for a progressive agenda that included farm relief, improved labor conditions, conservation of natural resources, and rural electrification. He persistently advocated a federal program to build dams on the Tennessee River in order to provide affordable electricity and economic planning along the river valley, a goal that he finally achieved in 1933. During the Depression, Norris worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who referred to him as "the very perfect gentle knight of American progressive ideals." Defeated for a sixth term in 1942, he retired to Nebraska, where he died on September 2, 1944.
Today, a visitor to the Senate Reception Room will look in vain for a portrait of George Norris. Despite Chairman Kennedy's active support, a committee rule requiring unanimous choices and the persistence of Norris's political adversaries still in the Senate blocked his selection. While denied this singular honor, Norris subsequently gained another commendable distinction in becoming one of the few senators in history to be the subject of a three-volume scholarly biography.
Lowitt, Richard. George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive, 1933-1944. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
Lowitt, Richard. George W. Norris: The Triumph of a Progressive, 1933-1944. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.