On a cold morning in January 1940, crowds lined the Capitol’s corridors hoping for admission to the Senate Chamber galleries. Shortly after noon, as senators took their seats, several hundred House members filed into the chamber, followed by the Supreme Court, the cabinet, diplomats, and President Franklin Roosevelt. All had come for the funeral service of the 33-year Senate veteran whom Time magazine anointed as the “most famed senator of the century”—the progressive Republican from Idaho, William E. Borah.
A bronze statue of Borah now stands outside the Senate Chamber. It captures a large kindly man, with a sharply chiseled face and a head of hair resembling the mane of a lion.
William Borah began his Senate career in 1907. His deeply resonant voice, natural skills as an actor, and rich command of the English language at once marked him as a gifted orator. A third of a century later, at his Senate funeral, no one delivered a eulogy because no one could match his eloquence.
Affectionately known as the “Lion of Idaho,” Borah took fiercely independent views that kept him at odds with his party’s leaders. A progressive reformer, he attacked business monopolies, worked to improve the lot of organized labor, promoted civil liberties, and secured passage of constitutional amendments for a graduated income tax and direct election of senators.
Borah is best remembered for his influence on American foreign policy in the years between World Wars I and II. From his senior position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he sought to keep the nation free of entangling foreign alliances, defeating American efforts to join the League of Nations and the World Court. Concerned at evidence of America’s increasing desire to become an imperial power, Borah believed that other nations should be left free to determine their own destinies guided only by the rule of law and public opinion.
Other senators envied Borah’s saturation press coverage. Reporters routinely gathered in his office for informal mid-afternoon conversations. His pronouncements on the issues of the day appeared in print so frequently that one newspaper quipped, “Borah this and Borah that, Borah here and Borah there, Borah does and Borah doesn’t—until you wish that Borah wasn’t.”
The hundreds who filed past his coffin in the Senate Chamber displayed just how glad they were that Borah was.