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Senate Leaders


Photo of Senator James Watson of Indiana

James E. Watson
"Impossible Not to Like"

"Who is more a 'real Republican' than Jim Watson?" asked a writer for Collier's magazine in 1931. The answer to the question was obvious: "no one." Indeed, the Senate's second official majority leader had all the credentials necessary for membership in the Republican "Old Guard"–a family history in politics, seniority in the House and Senate, and a devotion to every plank in the Republican platform. But unlike his notoriously abrasive "Old Guard" colleagues, the Indiana senator was charming and amiable, though often dismissed for his "thin" legislative record. While his four-year term as majority leader cannot be considered a success, he remained extremely popular until his death in 1948.

Born in Winchester, Indiana, in 1862, James E. Watson and his five siblings were introduced to politics early in life. At the age of twelve, young Jim Watson accompanied his father, a lawyer, Republican state legislator, and owner-editor of the Winchester Herald, to the Republican National Convention. Watson continued his political education at Indiana's DePauw University, where he played baseball and football and honed his speaking skills debating such friendly rivals as future Senator Albert J. Beveridge.

At nineteen, Watson passed the Indiana bar exam, joined his father's law firm, and began making speeches in support of Republican politicians, including his mother's cousin, a successful candidate for Congress. He traveled across Indiana, campaigning for Republican presidential nominees in the 1880s, and he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894. "Young, handsome, and eloquent," Watson defeated the Democratic incumbent, in part, by speaking German, the language of many of his rural constituents. He lost the election of 1896, but in 1899, he returned to the House, where he served a total of six terms.

Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Watson became Speaker Joe Cannon's protege and "right-hand man." Cannon ensured his selection as Republican whip, trusted him with inner House strategy, and placed him on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. While Cannon had his share of adversaries in the House, Watson enjoyed the attention of a wide circle of friends. An enthusiastic storyteller and poker player, he attracted members from both parties. Colleagues would come to the House chamber just to hear him speak–not to be swayed by his conservative views, but to see him put on a good show. As one writer observed, Watson "would work himself up to an astonishing pitch, tear off his collar and necktie, then throw aside his coat and vest, until, clad in trousers, shirt, and suspenders, he could really let himself go."

Watson left the House to run for governor of Indiana in 1908. Opposed by organized labor, he lost the election to Thomas R. Marshall, the future vice president under Woodrow Wilson. He continued to participate in Washington politics, however, supporting Cannon after House Democrats and Republican "insurgents" attempted to oust the speaker in 1909. The following year, Watson wrote Cannon's famous speech defending the leadership's authority, party government, and the rights of the majority. A pivotal moment in House history, the speech enabled Cannon to keep his position, but at a great reduction in power. The House adopted a resolution that prevented Cannon and subsequent speakers from serving on or appointing members to the all-important Rules Committee.

In the years after the House rebellion, Watson remained a prominent figure on Capitol Hill. Among other pursuits, he was a lobbyist for the American Manufacturers Association. While detractors, including members of the House, questioned the propriety of his new occupation, the criticism did not hurt his political standing in his home state. In fact, he became known as an Indiana "boss," and state politicians sought his endorsement as a necessary precursor to winning elections or appointments to higher office.

In 1916, Watson entered the U.S. Senate race against Democratic Senator John W. Kern, but his bitter primary battle against Harry S. New threatened to divide the state Republican party. Watson won the majority of primary delegates, but according to one source, New had "convincing affidavits of fraud" committed by Watson. As a result, Republican leaders could not decide which candidate to support. They were saved from making the decision when Indiana's other senator, Benjamin F. Shively, died in March. Both Republican candidates ran for Senate seats in the general election. New defeated Kern, and Watson won the remainder of Shively's term.

On November 8, 1916, Watson began his long career in the Senate, where he quickly earned a reputation as a "horse trader," able to convince reluctant senators to toe the party line. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, recognized Watson's skills at persuasion, and in 1919 he had Watson organize the Senate's opposition to the League of Nations provision in the Versailles Treaty. At the time, Charles Curtis was the official Republican whip. Nevertheless, Watson quietly accepted the position's duties during the two separate occasions when the Senate voted to reject the treaty.

Prior to the second treaty vote in March 1920, President Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations' chief advocate, met with Watson in the White House. "Where am I in this fight?" the president wanted to know. "Mr. President," the senator replied affably, "you are licked." Watson then predicted the vote on each of Lodge's fourteen treaty reservations. That settled, the two men, both storytellers, spent "quite an enjoyable time together for many minutes." The anecdote, recounted in Watson's memoirs, illustrates two aspects about the senator: he always knew the outcome of a vote, and even his greatest rivals enjoyed his company.

Throughout the twenties, Watson faced no serious challenges from Indiana politicians. While he spent little time on legislation, he climbed the ranks of the Republican party. According to one critic, the "burly, hearty fellow" didn't need a strong legislative record; party loyalty was his "fetish." Watson tested his party's support in 1928 when he ran against Herbert Hoover for the Republican presidential nomination. In his usual exuberant fashion, he denounced Hoover's platform in a series of pre-convention speeches. Hoover won the nomination, and Watson, as a party liner, supported his candidacy. Yet, he made no attempts to repair the poisoned relationship with Hoover.

Much to Hoover's dismay, on March 5, 1929, the Senate Republican "regulars" selected Watson to succeed Charles Curtis as majority leader and chairman of the Republican Conference. In October, the stock market crashed, and Watson's response with high-tariff legislation did little to ward off the financial depression. He clashed with Hoover on a number of issues, including the president's rough treatment of the World War I "bonus marchers," whose Capitol protest reflected the nation's dissatisfaction with Congress and the executive. By the end of his term, Watson was considered the Republican leader in name only. He neglected the administrative side of his job, leaving the day-to-day management of the Senate to his floor assistants, Senators Wesley Jones and Charles McNary.

The Democrats swept both Congress and the presidency in the election of 1932. As predicted, Watson lost his Senate seat in a landslide defeat. Following the election, however, Watson was a fixture of the Washington scene, practicing law and trading stories with his former colleagues in the Republican cloakroom. He also retained, to a lesser degree, his power over Indiana politics. Wendell Willkie, a GOP convert and fellow Hoosier, could attest that Watson's support, or lack thereof, meant everything in the state. When Willkie ran for president in 1940, Watson would not endorse the former Democrat. Reportedly, he justified his refusal by saying, "I may welcome a repentant sinner into my church, but I wouldn't want him to lead the church choir."

On July 29, 1948, Watson died at the age of eighty three. Dr. Frederick Brown Harris, the former Senate chaplain, performed the funeral service in Washington. Until the end, Watson remained well liked, if not well respected, by House and Senate members. Perhaps only Hoover and Willkie bore a lasting grudge against him. Indeed, even his harshest critics considered Watson the man "impossible not to like."