July 11, 1861
Nebraska’s George Norris, the man many consider history’s “greatest United States senator,” was born on July 11, 1861. He served in the Senate for 30 years, from 1913 until 1943. Fiercely independent, George Norris emerged politically as a western agrarian progressive Republican. Yet, throughout the New Deal era, as he regularly collaborated with President Franklin Roosevelt, some optimistically labeled him the “Democrat of Democrats.”
When the Senate established a special committee in 1955 to select five outstanding former members whose portraits would be permanently displayed in the Senate Reception Room, that panel solicited recommendations from 160 distinguished American historians and biographers. More of those scholars recommended George Norris than any of the other 41 names submitted. A definitive three-volume biography, published 30 years ago and the largest ever written about a senator who did not become president, catalogs Norris’ skills as a master of parliamentary maneuvering—from committee room, to cloakroom, to the Senate chamber.
History textbooks usually note four of his legislative accomplishments. They include the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended the 13-month “Lame-Duck” gap between the election of a new member of Congress and that member’s seating; the 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act, which strengthened organized labor’s collective bargaining hand; the campaign that resulted in Nebraska having the nation’s only unicameral state legislature; and, as his greatest legislative monument, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In 1958, the Senate Reception Room Committee, under threat of a filibuster by Nebraska’s conservative Senators Roman Hruska and Carl Curtis, who disagreed with their progressive predecessor’s political positions, reluctantly dropped Norris from consideration. In 1999, when the Senate added two more former members to its Pantheon, Norris again made the short list, but not the final cut.
Although excluded from this “Famous Seven,” Norris is immortalized among Senator John F. Kennedy’s Courageous Eight in his 1956 book Profiles in Courage. Kennedy admiringly quoted Norris, whose willingness to speak his mind against the prevailing views of his constituents ultimately led to his 1942 defeat in a bid for a sixth term. Said Norris, “I would rather go down to my political grave with a clear conscience than ride in the chariot of victory.”
Kennedy concluded, “Nothing could sway [George Norris] from what he thought was right, from his determination to help all the people, from his hope to save them from the twin tragedies of poverty and war.”