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Senate Leaders

Photo of Alben Barkley of Kentucky
Alben Barkley (D-KY)

Alben Barkley:
Congressional Voice of Liberty

"A good story," said Alben Barkley, "is like fine Kentucky bourbon, it improves with age and, if you don't use it too much, it will never hurt anyone." One of Congress' most proficient storytellers, Barkley used his booming baritone, endless repertoire of anecdotes, and rousing speech-making ability to propel himself from congressman to senator to majority leader and vice president. Well liked, he earned the esteem of his colleagues in 1944, when he dared to criticize Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Senate floor and transformed himself from the president's "errand boy" into a beacon of congressional independence.  

In 1877, Alben Barkley was born in a log cabin on his father's tobacco farm near Lowes, Kentucky. As a young man he worked as a janitor to support his way through Marvin College and to study law at Emory University and the University of Virginia Law School. Setting up a law practice in Paducah, he began his political career in 1905 when he rode a one-eyed bay horse over the back hills of McCracken County, campaigning for the office of prosecuting attorney. He also served as judge of the McCracken County Circuit Court before his election in 1912 to the United States House of Representatives.

On Capitol Hill, Barkley wholeheartedly supported the administration of Woodrow Wilson and took a leading role in the passage of Wilson's roads bill and farm credit bill. A party-line Democrat, he resisted the tide of conservativism in the 1920s, commenting that if the Harding administration had returned America to normalcy, "then in God's name let us have abnormalcy." He ran for governor of Kentucky in 1923, but lost the primary. Barkley vigorously campaigned for his party's chosen candidate, and in the process boosted his statewide reputation. In 1926, he sponsored the Howell-Barkley Act to set up the federal Board of Mediation and Conciliation for labor disputes. That same year Kentucky voters sent him to the United States Senate.

Handpicked by Roosevelt, Barkley was the keynote speaker at the 1932 national Democratic convention. The following year, he became vice chairman of the Democratic Conference and assistant to Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson. When Robinson died suddenly of a heart attack in July of 1937, FDR addressed a "Dear Alben" letter to Barkley, encouraging him to take up Robinson's fight for the controversial Supreme Court "packing plan" and, by implication, to take over as majority leader. Roosevelt's support helped Barkley win a narrow one-vote victory over Mississippi's Senator Pat Harrison for the majority leadership.

As FDR's majority leader, the "long suffering" Barkley endured the scorn of colleagues and journalists. Conservative Democrats, led by Harrison, banded with the Republicans to kill the controversial Court packing plan at the start of Barkley's leadership. The following month, he experienced an embarrassing procedural defeat when the Senate chose to follow Minority Leader Charles McNary's motion to recess. Senators who considered Barkley an illegitimate leader referred to him as "Dear Alben" to underscore his subordinate relationship to Roosevelt. Over time, however, Barkley effectively marshaled his colleagues in support of the administration. He was particularly successful in defending Roosevelt's foreign policy in the tense times just before World War II, leading the fights for repeal of the Neutrality Act, and the Arms Embargo Act, and for extension of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements. In January 1941, he sponsored the crucial Lend-Lease Act, and skillfully maneuvered it around numerous crippling amendments.

Barkley dramatically broke with FDR on February 23, 1944. At issue was the president's veto of a tax relief bill which Roosevelt charged was "not for the needy but for the greedy." Having helped shape the bill, Barkley denounced the president's statement as "a calculated and deliberate assault upon the legislative integrity of every member of Congress." He called upon his colleagues to override the veto, and then he resigned as majority leader. The next day, Senate Democrats unanimously reelected him to the post. "Make way for liberty!" shouted the burly senator from Texas, Tom Connally, when a delegation of senators pushed their way out to notify Barkley in his office. Barkley then appeared before the cheering conference. "By his one-vote margin in the 1937 contest when he was first elected leader the impression was given, and it has been the impression ever since, that he spoke to us for the President," said Senator Elbert Thomas. "Now he speaks for us to the President."

Although President Roosevelt sent a hasty apology and endorsed his reelection as leader, the break probably cost Barkley the vice presidential nomination in 1944, which went instead to Missouri's Senator Harry Truman. After Roosevelt died and Truman became President, Barkley continued to support the administration, both as majority leader, and in the 80th Congress as minority leader.

In 1948, once more the keynote speaker before a Democratic convention, Barkley so lifted the delegates from their lethargy and defeatism with his fighting speech that they nominated him for vice president. At seventy-one, he demonstrated his physical endurance by conducting the first "prop stop" campaign by airplane. He covered twenty-six states, made innumerable speeches, and helped the Truman ticket win an upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey.

Nicknamed the "Veep" by his grandson, Barkley was the last vice president to routinely preside over the Senate. During Senate recesses, he traveled around the nation promoting Truman's Fair Deal program. The widower vice president also won a reputation as a romantic for his whirlwind courtship and marriage to the thirty-eight-year-old Jane Hadley, which received widespread national publicity. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, but withdrew in the face of charges that he was too old for the job.

Still, Barkley refused to retire. He returned to Kentucky and ran again for the Senate, defeating the popular Republican incumbent, John Sherman Cooper. In doing so, he provided the single-vote margin that returned the Democrats to the majority. While his colleagues gave him back his assignments on the Foreign Relations and Finance Committees, he would not accept their offer of a front-row seat in the Senate chamber, and preferred to join the other freshmen in the back. "Now I am back again as a junior Senator and I am willing to be a junior," he said before a "mock" convention of students at Washington and Lee University on April 30, 1956. "I'm glad to sit in the back row. For I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty." With those words, the crowd roared with applause, then fell back in stunned silence as Barkley collapsed and died on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack.

 
  

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