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Senate Sacks Sergeant at Arms

February 7, 1933

David S. Barry

It was every Senate staffer's worst nightmare: to be called to the Senate Chamber to explain a personal action considered disrespectful of the institution. On a cold winter's afternoon in 1933, that is what happened to Sergeant at Arms David Barry. The Senate's chief law enforcement officer, responsible for carrying out orders to arrest others sought by the Senate, was himself commanded to appear before the body. The widely respected official had held his office for nearly 14 years, making him—even today—the third longest-serving sergeant at arms in Senate history. In February 1933, however, Barry faced immediate dismissal and possible trial in federal court on charges of libel.

The 73-year-old Republican had spent most of his life associated with the Senate, previously serving as a page, a secretary to several members, and a newspaper correspondent. Barry's term would have ended four weeks later with the start of the 73rd Congress, when control passed to the Democrats. But members believed that his transgression was so outrageous that it deserved an immediate response.

Late in 1932, Barry drafted an article to be published soon after his retirement. Unfortunately for him, the journal printed it while Barry was still in office. In the article, he criticized reformers who called for major changes in Senate operations. He explained, "there are not many crooks in Congress, that is, out and out grafters; there are not many Senators or Representatives who sell their vote for money, and it is pretty well known who those few are; but there are many demagogues of the kind that will vote for legislation solely because they think that it will help their political and social fortunes."

On February 3, hours after accounts of the article appeared in the morning papers, the Senate summoned Barry to its chamber. The deeply upset sergeant at arms told the assembled senators that he had written the article "carelessly and thoughtlessly." "My idea was to defend the Senate from the [mistaken] popular belief that there are crooks and grafters here. . . . I do not know of any such men and did not mean to imply that I did." On February 7, 1933, after waiting several days to avoid giving the impression of a hasty judgment, the Senate fired Barry. Thus ended an otherwise distinguished Senate career.