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Two Senators Take Cabinet Posts


March 4, 1933

Senator Cordell Hull

Throughout the Senate's history, incumbent senators have seldom resigned to accept cabinet posts. During the 20th century, only eight made that choice. It is even more unusual to have two senators move simultaneously to the cabinet. That last happened in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt nominated Tennessee's Cordell Hull as his secretary of state and Virginia's Claude Swanson as secretary of the navy.

Actually, as president-elect, FDR turned to the Senate for three cabinet nominees. For attorney general, he selected 20-year Senate veteran Thomas Walsh of Montana. Walsh had gained national fame a decade earlier for exposing the Teapot Dome Scandal and had chaired the 1932 Democratic National Convention that nominated Roosevelt. The following March, on a train journey to attend Roosevelt's inauguration, the 73-year-old Walsh fell ill and died. FDR had to settle for two senators in his cabinet.

Going into the 1932 Democratic Convention, FDR had lacked the necessary delegate support to gain the two-thirds vote the party then required for nomination. To expand Roosevelt's delegate base, strategist Louis Howe began negotiations with various state leaders. Howe put the question directly to former Virginia Governor Harry Byrd. "What's your price?" Byrd responded that he wanted to be a United States senator. "Very well," said Howe. Referring to Virginia's two incumbent Democratic senators, he pledged, "We'll put either [Carter] Glass or [Claude] Swanson in Franklin's cabinet.

When Carter Glass indicated he was not interested in becoming treasury secretary, FDR asked 70-year-old Senate veteran Claude Swanson to become Navy secretary. As a former assistant Navy secretary, Roosevelt had a special affection for the Navy Department, which at that time had cabinet status. Swanson served as secretary for six years until his death in 1939, proud of helping to create "the greatest navy afloat."

By contrast, 62-year-old Cordell Hull, a long-time House member, had served in the Senate for only two years. The Tennessean endeared himself to FDR at the 1932 Democratic convention by maneuvering delegates away from other candidates. As with his choice of Virginia's Swanson, Roosevelt selected Hull, who was widely admired throughout the South, to strengthen that region's support for his legislative program.

Cordell Hull subsequently ran the State Department as if it were a 1920s congressional office. He had little interest in large organizational issues, believing that if his subordinates followed his example of working long hours with little time for outside diversions, all would be well. From the beginning, President Roosevelt regularly undercut or by-passed him in making foreign policy decisions. Despite these frustrations, Hull served a productive 12 years in the cabinet.

The crowning accomplishment for this senator-who-took-a-chance-on-a-cabinet-post was the 1945 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the United Nations.