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Senate Leaders


Photo of Senator William Knowland of California

William Knowland
The Forgotten Leader

In 1953, the convergence of unusual circumstances gave the Democrats the plurality of the Senate's membership while the Senate Republicans maintained their majority party status. The situation made it impossible for the new Republican leader to control the legislative agenda. Indeed, Senator William Knowland lamented his ineffectiveness on the Senate floor, "Mr. President, . . . I have the responsibilities of being the majority leader in this body without having a majority." The minority leader, Lyndon Johnson, shot back, "If anyone has more problems than a majority leader with a minority, it is a minority leader with a majority." Though witty, the retort was hardly accurate. Johnson had few difficulties handling the Senate or trumping the nominal majority leader.

A half century later, few people outside of Northern California recall his name, let alone know that William Knowland led the Senate for less than one term between the more impressive reigns of Robert Taft and Johnson. Political historians rarely acknowledge the former senator except to point out the obvious: Knowland was no Taft. He was no Johnson. He was no Everett Dirksen, his successor to the position of Republican leader. Still, Knowland made his mark on the Senate, standing firm on Cold War foreign policy even in opposition to his party. In an attempt to fulfill his presidential aspirations, however, he left the institution prematurely. Later termed a "political suicide," the act foreshadowed a more tragic display of self destruction.

Born in 1908 in Alameda, California, Bill Knowland grew up in a household devoted to two entities: the Republican party and the Oakland Tribune, the newspaper owned and operated by his family. As a young child, he witnessed the workings of Congress firsthand. From 1903 to 1914, his father, Joseph R. Knowland, served in the House of Representatives. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1929, Bill Knowland co-published the Tribune as he pursued his own career in politics. In 1932, at the age of twenty four, he won election to the California state assembly. Three years later, Knowland entered the state senate. At the same time, he became an active member of the Republican National Committee and assumed a top leadership position in 1941.

World War II briefly interrupted Knowland's political career. Drafted into the army, he attained the rank of major after officer training at Fort Benning, GA. In 1945, Knowland was serving in France as a military writer when Senator Hiram Johnson died, leaving California a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Joe Knowland, a major campaign contributor, had the Republican Governor Earl Warren appoint his son to the remainder of Johnson's term. Bill Knowland took an honorable discharge and rushed to Washington to be sworn in. He assumed his seat on August 26 and, the next year, won the election for a full six-year term.

Humorless and "bullheaded," Knowland built his reputation on his role in post-war foreign policy. Following a trip to the Far East, he focused his attention on China, defending its nationalist government against the communist regime. An adamant member of the "China lobby," he opposed the country's entrance into the United Nations after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1952, Knowland ran on both the Republican and the Democratic ticket to easily win his reelection to the Senate. The same election brought Republican Dwight Eisenhower to the White House and gave the Republicans control of the Senate, elevating Robert Taft to majority leader. In the first months of the 83rd Congress, Taft worked closely with Eisenhower, while Knowland countered the new administration on its foreign policy in Asia. Still, he got along with Taft, who appreciated his gruff personality and principled determination. That spring, however, Taft was diagnosed with cancer and, within weeks, he was too ill to perform the functions of his position. Rather than choose the party whip, Leverett Saltonstall, to replace him, Taft made Knowland the acting majority leader, on the grounds that "nobody can push him around."

Before Taft died in July 1953, the GOP held the Senate majority by a 48-47 margin with one senator, Wayne Morse, listed as an Independent. In November, a Democrat, Thomas Burke, was appointed to fill Taft's seat in the Senate. The balance of power remained 48-47-1, but now the Democratic party possessed the one-member advantage. To make matters even more confusing, a total of nine senators died during the 83rd, and the ratio of Republicans to Democrats shifted several times. Senator Morse, however, promised to vote with the Republicans to organize the Senate. Thus, with Vice President Richard Nixon available to cast a tie-breaking vote, Knowland's "minority" party held onto its "majority" status until the start of the next Congress in 1955.

In the meantime, the Republican caucus elected Knowland to be the official majority leader, while the Democratic floor leader, Lyndon Johnson, had already begun to take command of the Senate.

Outmaneuvered by Johnson and cut out of policy discussions with Eisenhower, with whom he often disagreed, the "blustery" Knowland had little leverage in his position. While he got Earl Warren, the future chief justice, appointed to the Supreme Court, he scored few legislative victories.

The rift between the majority leader and the administration widened as moderate Republicans distanced themselves from Senator Joseph McCarthy's aggressive tactics as chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Knowland shared the senator's concerns over communists in the government and defended his right to interrogate witnesses testifying at hearings. Nevertheless, he allowed the formation of a special bipartisan committee tasked with determining the necessity of censuring McCarthy. Although the Senate voted for the public condemnation, Knowland's support for the discredited senator never wavered.

When the Democrats took back the chamber in 1955, Knowland became the Senate minority leader. He had one notable success in this position: he was the floor manager for the bill that became the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major legislation to address voter intimidation in the South. Johnson, however, took both the credit and the criticism for the Senate amendments that significantly curtailed the bill's intent.

Knowland decided not to campaign for reelection in 1958, as he hoped to eventually run for the presidency and believed that he had a better chance at the White House if he first served as California's governor. After a rough primary, Knowland lost the gubernatorial election by more than a million votes. His political career essentially dead, the former Senate leader resumed his publishing duties at the Oakland Tribune. In later years, he worked for the economic development of the Bay Area while his personal life dismantled around him. Heavily in debt and facing a second divorce, Knowland died in 1974, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.