"A good story is like fine Kentucky bourbon,” Alben Barkley once said. “It improves with age and, if you don't use it too much, it will never hurt anyone."1 One of Congress's most proficient storytellers, Barkley used his booming baritone voice, endless repertoire of anecdotes, and rousing speech-making abilities to propel himself through a long and distinguished political career. In 1944, as Senate majority leader, Barkley boldly defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt over a policy issue and transformed his leadership role from the president's "errand boy" into a beacon of senatorial independence.2
Alben Barkley was born in 1877 in a log cabin on his father's tobacco farm near Lowes, Kentucky. As a young man with little primary school education, he worked as a janitor in return for the opportunity to attend Marvin College in Clinton, Kentucky, tuition-free. After graduating in 1897, Barkley studied law at Emory University and later participated in a summer program at the University of Virginia Law School. He passed the Kentucky bar exam in 1901 and set up a law practice in Paducah.
Barkley’s political career began in 1905, when he rode a one-eyed bay horse over the back hills of McCracken County to successfully campaign for the office of county prosecuting attorney, a position he held from 1905 to 1909. Four years as judge of the McCracken County Circuit Court followed, and in 1912 he was elected to serve Kentucky’s First District in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a representative, Barkley enthusiastically supported the Democratic administration of President Woodrow Wilson, whom he considered to be the “greatest statesman and greatest president” of his lifetime.3 He supported Wilson’s New Freedom agenda that included tariff reform, abolishing child labor, and federal aid for improving rural roadways, and was a leader in efforts to establish Prohibition. As a party-line Democrat in the post-Wilson era, Barkley rejected the tide of conservatism in the 1920s, commenting that if the Warren G. Harding administration had returned America to normalcy, "then in God's name let us have abnormalcy."4 He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Kentucky in 1923 but won election to the U.S. Senate in 1926.
In the Senate, Barkley gained a seat on the Committees on Banking and Currency, Finance, and Foreign Relations, and was appointed to the Select Committee to Investigate Presidential Campaign Expenditures. The latter committee produced little evidence of wrongdoing, but Barkley’s participation raised his national visibility and led to speculation of a potential run for the vice presidency on the Democratic ticket in 1928. That position went to Arkansas senator Joseph T. Robinson instead, who ran unsuccessfully on the ticket with New York governor Alfred E. Smith, but the attention further spurred Barkley’s career. In 1932, handpicked by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barkley served as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.
Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election and brought with him strong Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In 1933 Barkley became vice chairman of the Senate’s Democratic Conference and assistant to Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson. When Robinson died suddenly of a heart attack in July of 1937, Barkley competed against Mississippi senator Pat Harrison for the leadership post. The contest stirred a whirlwind of debate, and adding to the storm was Franklin Roosevelt. The day after Robinson’s death, Roosevelt had sent a letter to Barkley, which was quickly reprinted in the press, addressed to “My Dear Alben” and referring to the Kentucky senator as the “acting majority leader.” The letter called for passage of the president’s controversial Court packing bill but also was a thinly veiled endorsement of Barkley as leader. It caused an uproar. The perceived insolence of that “Dear Alben” salutation, which was widely ridiculed, embarrassed Barkley and angered senators, who thought the president had no right to interfere in a purely senatorial matter. Publicly, the president proclaimed neutrality, but privately he continued to cajole senators into voting for Barkley. The battle ended in a dramatic vote in the Democratic Conference, when Barkley won the race by a single vote.
As Senate majority leader, Barkley faced a divided and often contentious caucus. Senators who opposed Barkley referred to him derisively as "Dear Alben,” underscoring his subordinate relationship to the president. He quickly faced defeat when a number of Democrats, led by Montana’s Burton K. Wheeler, banded with Republicans to kill the Court packing plan. The following month, Barkley experienced an embarrassing procedural defeat when the Senate chose to follow Minority Leader Charles McNary's motion to recess. Over time, however, Barkley effectively gained control of the combative caucus and marshaled his colleagues in support of the Democratic administration. He was particularly successful in defending Roosevelt's foreign policy during the tense days before World War II, leading the fights for repeal of the Neutrality Acts and for extension of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements. He sponsored the crucial Lend-Lease Act in 1941 and skillfully maneuvered it through numerous crippling amendments.
By 1944 Barkley had become “the president’s man” in the Senate. That changed in February of that year, however, when Barkley dramatically and publicly broke with Roosevelt. What prompted the break? The previous month, President Roosevelt had sent to Congress draft legislation for a $10 billion increase in taxes to help pay the cost of American involvement in World War II. When the bill emerged from the Senate Finance Committee, it included only 20 percent of what the president had requested. Convinced that the scaled-back authorization was all the Senate was likely to pass, Majority Leader Barkley implored the president to approve the measure. Roosevelt ignored the Senate leader, excoriated Congress in a stinging message, and vetoed the bill. Frustrated, Barkley denounced the president's veto as "a calculated and deliberate assault upon the legislative integrity of every member of Congress." Then, in a dramatic turn of events, Barkley resigned as leader. “My resignation will be tendered and my services terminated,” he proclaimed, and then added, “If the Congress . . . has any self-respect left, it will override the [president’s] veto.”5
Barkley didn’t remain out of his leadership post for long. The next day, Senate Democrats unanimously reelected him. "Make way for liberty!" shouted Tom Connally of Texas as a delegation of senators pushed their way out of conference and down the hall to notify Barkley of his good fortune.6 Utah senator Elbert Thomas remarked to journalist Allen Drury that ever since Barkley’s election as leader by a single vote, “the impression was given … that he spoke to us for the President. Now that he has been unanimously elected, he speaks for us to the President.”7 President Roosevelt sent a hasty apology to Barkley and endorsed his reelection as leader, but the break probably cost Barkley the vice-presidential nomination in 1944, which went instead to Missouri senator Harry Truman. When Truman became president in April of 1945, Barkley supported the new administration as Democratic leader. In 1948 Barkley became Truman’s vice-presidential running mate. Winning a surprising victory over the Republican ticket of Thomas E. Dewey and Earl Warren, Barkley served as vice president from 1949 to 1953.
Nicknamed the "Veep" by his grandson, Vice President Barkley routinely presided over the Senate, using Senate recesses to travel around the nation promoting Truman's Fair Deal program. In 1952 he became a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he withdrew in the face of charges that at age 75, he was too old for the job. Still, Barkley refused to retire. He returned to Kentucky and ran again for the Senate in 1954, defeating the popular Republican incumbent, John Sherman Cooper. In doing so, he helped the Democrats gain the one-vote margin they needed for majority control of the Senate. His colleagues restored his assignments on the Foreign Relations and Finance Committees, but he rejected their offer of a front-row seat in the Senate Chamber, preferring to join the other freshmen in the back row.
On April 30, 1956, barely a year after again taking the senatorial oath of office, the 78-year-old Kentucky senator traveled to Virginia's Washington and Lee University, where he delivered one of his trademark, rabble-rousing speeches. As he concluded, Barkley reminded the audience that after decades in national politics he had again become a freshman senator, and he explained why he had declined the offer of a front-row seat in the Chamber. "I am glad to sit on the back row," Barkley thundered, "for I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty."8 Then, with the applause of a large audience ringing in his ears, Alben Barkley dropped dead. It was perhaps the best exit line in all of American political oratory. He hadn't intended to give a farewell address, but for an old-fashioned stump speaker like Barkley, there could have been no more fitting end to a long and illustrious political career.