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Oral History Project

Senator Hayden on “saying little and getting things done”

August 25, 1978

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The following is an excerpt from the oral history interview with Floyd M. Riddick, Senate parliamentarian, conducted by associate Senate historian Donald Ritchie.


RIDDICK: Another story that I think is most interesting; Senator Carl Hayden told me this story. I remember when I first came up to the Senate to work I had interviewed him, because he was the head man here for all practical purposes. When we were setting up—he was also the chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing—and when I came up to set up the "Daily Digest" in the back of the Congressional Record, I was sent over to interview Senator Hayden. And I hadn't talked with him more than three minutes before he picked up the phone and called what was then called the Bureau of the Budget and told them that he was going to send me down to figure out the estimated costs of running the Digest. Well, he impressed me so by his action that I wanted to ask him a few questions.

I had read the Record for many years and I always noticed that you never found that Carl Hayden said more than a paragraph in the Record on any bill. He'd get up and make a brief statement and that was it. And I said: "Senator, I have heard since I've been around here that you are without doubt one of the most influential members of the Senate. That whatever you say they do. And I never see where you debate much. Why is it you never have much to say?"

He said: "Well, let me tell you young man, when I first came to the House of Representatives the leader for the Democrats,” (and I think these facts are right—that is, the date) “John Sharp Williams from Mississippi was the Democratic leader during the Woodrow Wilson administration,” (at least part of the time).1 And [Hayden] said, “Well, I had always been interested in the interstate highways system and had spent much time in that field and felt that I knew the subject pretty well." (And as you know, he is considered the father of the federal aid to highway systems.) He said: "Well, when I was in the House on this occasion and John Sharp Williams was the majority leader, we were debating this highway bill.” And he said, “I went down into the well of the House that day and spoke for an hour on this thing, or for a long period of time, setting forth my philosophy in every detail, and how I thought this highway bill should be developed and enacted. And after I finished I walked back down to the leader's desk,” (you know, they have tables in the House side for the leaders to sit), “went back down to the leader’s desk where John Sharp Williams was sitting,” (who was then the Democratic leader), and I turned to him and I said: 'Mr. Leader, how did that sound?'" He said John Sharp Williams twisted his long handlebar mustache a little bit and turned to him and said: "Young man, it sounded good. But it's on the Record now and it's hard to change after you put it on the Record." And he said: "That taught me a lesson, and it leaves me more maneuverability to say little and get things done." That impressed me very much.

1 John Sharp Williams served as the Democratic minority leader of the House of Representatives from 1903 to 1908. Riddick may have been referring to Oscar Underwood of Alabama, who was Democratic majority leader of the House of Representatives from 1911 to 1915.