The "Paper Majority" Leader
In 1949, Look magazine polled 100 Washington correspondents for their views on the 81st Congress, which had convened earlier that year. The question, "Which senator contributes the most to the country's welfare?," drew a near-unanimous response: Robert A. Taft, the Republican Conference chairman. In contrast, the reporters did not even list the new Democratic majority leader, Scott W. Lucas, among the top 25 most powerful senators. Lucas did rank highly in one respect—he won the category, "best dressed senator." Known for his double-breasted suits and homburg hats, the "farmer's son" from Illinois maintained a dapper, "well groomed" appearance even under the most trying of circumstances.
While Scott Lucas may have aspired to Taft's power, as majority leader he faced an impossible situation. In the postwar years, the Democratic Party split between liberal and conservative factions, and Lucas' efforts to unify his colleagues only resulted in further alienating one side from the other. At the same time, constrained by his leadership duties, he lost touch with his constituents—as one journalist put it, Lucas experienced the "misery" of his leadership position without the "glory." In fact, his one term as Senate majority leader took a physical toll. He had at least one unreported heart attack in office prior to his 1950 reelection defeat by Everett Dirksen, the Illinois Republican who would have more influence as a minority leader than Lucas ever achieved as the majority leader.
Born in 1892 in southern Illinois, Lucas grew up on an impoverished tenant farm. While his parents named him for Scott Wike, a Democratic U.S. representative, it was his older brother, Thurman, who steered him towards a political career. Thurman encouraged Lucas to study law in college and helped him with his initial expenses. Lucas then supported himself at Illinois Wesleyan University by stoking furnaces, waiting on tables, and performing other odd jobs. A consummate athlete, he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. During summer breaks from college, he played semiprofessional baseball in the Three-I League, consisting of teams from Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana.
After graduating from college in 1914, Lucas taught in a one-room schoolhouse before opening a law practice in Havana, Illinois. World War I interrupted his plans, however, and he enlisted in the army in 1917. Although he never saw combat, Lucas rose from the rank of private to lieutenant by the end of the war. Returning to Havana, he established himself as a "first-rate" country lawyer and served as a state's attorney for five years in the 1920s.
In August 1934, the Speaker of the House, Henry T. Rainey of Illinois, died in office. Lucas won the election to the House seat of his political idol and soon became an advocate for farmers and working people. A champion of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, he actively supported the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. He also fought for a minimum wage, employment insurance, and the abolishment of child labor. Lucas broke with FDR, however, over the president's crusade to enlarge the Supreme Court in response to its anti-New Deal rulings. He called the "Court-packing" plan, "useless, selfish, and futile."
In 1938, Lucas ran for an open seat in the Senate. The Democratic primary proved to be the most difficult hurdle in the campaign. Members of the Chicago political machine favored another candidate. Lucas capitalized on the situation, taking the motto, "Defeat the Bosses." He won the primary and reconciled with Chicago's mayor Edward Kelly, who supported his successful bid in the general election.
As a freshman senator, Lucas kept a low profile, preferring to be a "good listener" rather than a prominent speaker, but Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945 led to Lucas' rise to leadership early in his second term. Backed by President Harry S. Truman and the liberal Democrats, he drew enough support from his more conservative colleagues to be elected party whip in 1946.
Lucas was popular in the position of whip, both with his fellow senators and his Illinois constituents, whom he aided with favorable farm bills. He did anger a number of Republican and Democratic senators, however, by voting to sustain Truman's veto in 1947 of the Taft-Hartley Act, the controversial legislation that restricted labor unions' right to strike. The House and Senate overrode the veto, foreshadowing the difficulties Lucas would face as the chief defender of Truman's domestic policies.
In 1948, Lucas assisted Truman throughout his difficult presidential race. He took charge of the midwest campaign and helped pull off one of the greatest political upsets of the 20th century. Not only did Truman unexpectedly defeat the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, but the Democrats took back the control of the Senate, gaining nine seats in the election. After the party's Senate leader, Alben Barkley, resigned his seat to assume the vice presidency under Truman, Lucas' colleagues unanimously elected him to be the majority leader and chairman of the Democratic Conference.
While Majority Leader Lucas regarded his role as "harmonizing the different views" in his party, he had little success in building a Democratic consensus. On matters concerning Truman's "Fair Deal" domestic policy, the southern Democrats broke ranks with their party, voting with the Republicans to defeat priority administration measures. Lucas' majority rule, then, was a majority "on paper" only, as the southern bloc held the balance of power in the Senate.
In 1949, the southern senators staged a lengthy filibuster against Truman's civil rights legislation. After trying and failing to close debate, Lucas received the "lashing" of southern colleagues, as well as the "counter-blows" of liberal Democrats, who decried his "soft" stance against the conservatives. Constituents and members of the press joined the chorus of criticism, accusing him of losing the "civil rights war."
Sensitive to the "slings and arrows" that came his way, Lucas spent three weeks in the hospital recovering from the filibuster ordeal. The New York Times reported the mysterious illness as a case of "exhaustion." Other newspapers, perhaps at Lucas' request, announced that the majority leader had a bleeding ulcer. In retrospect, however, it is likely that Lucas actually suffered from a heart attack, as he hid his serious coronary disease while in office.
Lucas' inability to please either the liberals or the conservatives in his party became more apparent during his 1950 reelection campaign. Accused of kowtowing to the president, he declared, "I could never have advanced from farm boy to senator if I wasn't independent by nature." Yet he told an erstwhile supporter, "You must remember as Majority Leader I am compelled to reconcile some of my viewpoints with those of the President. . . . I have flexed my conscience a bit on some things."
Lucas' Senate opponent, Everett Dirksen, took advantage of the majority leader's predicament, linking Lucas with Truman's unpopular policies. Meanwhile, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy launched an attack against Lucas, charging him with condoning communism, just as the Crime Investigation Committee, led by Democratic senator Estes Kefauver, uncovered corruption among the Chicago politicians who backed Lucas' reelection bid. Advised to return to Illinois to defend his record, Lucas instead spent most of the election year in Washington, attending to his leadership duties.
On November 7, 1950, Lucas wrote one word in his appointment book: "defeated." Later, his physician said that the election loss saved his life. His heart could not endure one more year of job-related stress. In fact, Lucas lived another 17 years, dying in 1968 at the age of 76. The former majority leader spent his forced retirement on the golf course, content to rule the links as he never ruled the Senate.