April 30, 1956
It was perhaps the best exit line in all of American political history. Never has a United States senator bade farewell with such timing and drama.
Kentucky's Alben Barkley served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1913 until 1927, when he moved to the Senate. In 1937, Senate Democrats chose him as their majority leader. At the 1948 Democratic convention, the 70-old Barkley won the vice-presidential nomination. The following January, after 12 years of leading the Senate from the floor, Vice President Barkley became its constitutional presiding officer. His young grandson considered the formal title of "Mr. Vice President" to be a mouthful and invented an abbreviated alternative, by which Barkley was known for the rest of his life: "The Veep."
Barkley loved the Senate and became the last vice president to preside more than half the time the Senate was in session. He was also the last vice president not to have an office in or near the White House. Despite the honor of his vice-presidential position, Barkley missed being a senator. He enjoyed telling the story of the mother who had two sons. One went to sea; the other became vice president; and neither was heard from again. When his vice-presidential term ended in 1953, Barkley happily ran for Kentucky's other Senate seat. His 1954 defeat of an incumbent Republican returned Senate control to the Democrats by a one-vote margin and made Lyndon Johnson majority leader.
On April 30, 1956, the 78-year-old Kentucky senator traveled to Virginia's Washington and Lee University. There he gave one of his trademark rip-snorting, Republican-bashing speeches. At its conclusion, he reminded his audience that after 42 years in national politics he had become a freshman again and had declined a front-row chamber seat with senior senators. "I am glad to sit on the back row," he declared, "for I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty." Then, with the applause of a large audience ringing in his ears, he dropped dead. For an old-fashioned orator, there could have been no more appropriate final stage exit.
Barkley, Alben W. “The Majority Leader in the Legislative Process.” Included in The Process of Government, by Simeon S. Willis, et al, eds. Lexington: Bureau of Government Research, University of Kentucky, 1949.
Barkley, Alben W. That Reminds Me. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1954.
Barkley, Jane R. I Married the Veep. New York: Vanguard Press, 1958.
Baker, Richard A., and Roger H. Davidson, eds. First Among Equals: Outstanding Senate Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1991.