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"Wild Bill"

November 8, 1959

Image of  william Langer

North Dakota Republican William Langer was one of the 20th century's most colorful United States senators. In 1959 he was described as "tempestuous," "swashbuckling," and "thoroughly unpredictable in his actions and attitudes."

"Wild Bill" Langer, as he came to be known, began his public career in 1916 as North Dakota's hard-charging attorney general. In 1932, he won the state's governorship thanks to support from Depression-ravaged farmers. Two years later, however, he was convicted and removed from office for forcing state employees to donate 5 percent of their salaries to his political organization. Always a fighter, Langer won exoneration and another term as governor. In 1940 he gained a seat in the U.S. Senate.

On January 3, 1941, when Langer appeared in the Senate Chamber to take his oath, Majority Leader Alben Barkley announced that several citizens of North Dakota had petitioned the Senate to deny him a seat owing to his financial misconduct as governor. The Senate seated him without prejudice to a subsequent investigation. That inquiry by the Committee on Privileges and Elections consumed an entire year.

In January 1942, the committee's 4,200-page majority report recommended Langer be denied his seat as morally unfit to be a United States senator. Allegations included jury tampering and inciting to riot. A committee minority sharply disagreed, noting that voters had been well aware of the largely unsubstantiated charges at the time of Langer's election. The minority warned against allowing the Senate to be used by a winner's opponents to overturn the results of a lawful election. In its requirements for election to the Senate, they noted, the Constitution makes no reference to moral purity.

For two weeks in March 1942, as the challenges of the nation's recent entry into World War II confronted Congress, William Langer sat in the Senate Chamber listening to colleagues debate his moral character. In the end, by a two-to-one margin, they upheld his seating.

Langer went on to win three additional Senate terms and to serve as Judiciary Committee chairman. A strict isolationist, he was one of only two senators to vote against the United Nations charter (Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota was the other.) He won his final election in 1958 without the endorsement of his party and—refusing to leave his ailing wife's bedside—without making a single speech. Langer died on November 8, 1959. His funeral was held in the Senate Chamber.