His admirers called him "The Tiger of the Senate." His many enemies, including five presidents, called him a lot worse. Today he is remembered as a gifted lawmaker and principled maverick who thrived on controversy.
Wayne Morse was born in Wisconsin in 1900. In his early years, he fell under the influence of that state's fiery progressive senator, Robert M. La Follette, a stem-winding orator and champion of family farmers and the laboring poor. In the 1930s, Morse became the nation's youngest law school dean and a skilled labor arbitrator. In 1944, despite his New Deal sympathies, he won election as a Republican to an Oregon U.S. Senate seat.
During the 1952 presidential campaign, Morse broke ranks with Republican leaders over the party's platform and Dwight Eisenhower's choice of Richard Nixon as his running mate. Claiming the Republican Party had left him, Morse announced his switch to Independent status. In January 1953, Morse arrived at the opening session of the 83rd Congress with a folding chair and a comment. "Since I haven't been given any seat in the new Senate, I decided to bring my own." Although he was placed on the majority Republican side, that party's caucus stripped him of his choice committee assignments.
Against this backdrop, Wayne Morse rose on the Senate floor on April 24, 1953. Described as "a lean trim man, with a clipped mustache, sharp nose, and bushy black eyebrows," he began a filibuster against Tidelands Oil legislation. When he concluded after 22 hours and 26 minutes, he had broken the 18-hour record set in 1908 by his mentor, Robert La Follette. Morse kept that distinction until 1957, when Strom Thurmond logged the current record of 24 hours and 18 minutes.
In 1955, Morse formally changed his party allegiance, giving Senate Democrats the one-vote margin that returned them to the majority. Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson gave him his choice of committee assignments. In 1968, Morse, a resolute critic of the war in Vietnam, lost his Senate seat to Robert Packwood by less than 3,000 votes. He died six years later in the midst of a campaign to regain that seat.
This blunt-spoken, iconoclastic populist is remembered today with many colorful stories. For example, Clare Booth Luce was forced to resign her newly confirmed ambassadorship after commenting that her troubles with Senator Morse went back to the time when he had been kicked in the head by a horse.