BOOK REVIEW: ‘Mr. Speaker!’

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By James Grant
Simon & Schuster, $28, 375 pages

James Grant, author of five books on finance and financial history and a television commentator, has produced this interesting biography of Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. (Czar) Reed. Aimed at enthusiasts of American political history, it may seem to others a cramped focus on partisan politics and arcane congressional debate of long ago. But there are rewards.

Reed, born in Portland, Maine, in 1839, bridged the eras of Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt. He was an able student at Bowdoin College, served in the Maine legislature’s lower house, then Senate, going on to become the youngest state attorney general in Maine history, making a reputation as an able trial lawyer. He won election to Congress in 1876 and to the speakers chair in 1889, at the height of the Gilded Age.

If the present-day House of Representatives seems characterized by the revolutionary zeal of “young Turks,” the House in Reed’s day had a rather predictable agenda and men of reputation and distinction. The shadow of the Civil War still hung over the House, producing partisan distrust and frequent reference to the “bloody shirt.” The chronic Republican interests were protective tariff, low taxation, postponing female suffrage, limiting labor unions and the right to strike, and defeating cheap currency and bimetallism in favor of convertible gold.

Republicans were beset by Democrats and farmers on all these issues, and the debates were vigorous, often angry, with many gems of comic and sardonic humor of which Reed was a master. He was always quick to perceive the direction of his party’s interest and to guide the debate and procedure toward the desired result. His astute mastery of debate and his ingenuity in finding novel powers in the speaker’s authority lent him the appellation of “Czar.” He was regarded by the young Theodore Roosevelt as a mentor and model, though by James G. Blaine as an acolyte of dubious loyalty (a not unwarranted perception).

Reed blazed his own trail on two issues: He was four-square in favor of female suffrage and firmly opposed to the Roosevelt-Lodge eagerness to fight Spain and acquire empire in Cuba and the Philippines. In this respect, he was bitterly out of step with his party and the times, which distressed Lodge and TR. At the time of his resignation from his seat in the House in 1899, he said: “Had I stayed, I must have been as speaker always in a false position in aiding and organizing things in which I did not believe or using power against those who gave it to me.”

There is an echo here of Henry Clay, who was warned that his controversial vote on the compromise of 1850 would cost him the presidency, and said: “I would rather be right than be president of the United States.” Reed was a homegrown intellectual in a political culture of philistines. He taught himself French and often wrote letters in that language. His brain was looking for something that his work did not provide him.

For this reviewer, the search for wit and wisdom in the proceedings of successive Congresses makes pretty dry reading. Congressional humor is an acquired taste for the aficionado. But Reed stands out as a star in an unexceptional universe.

David C. Acheson is a past president of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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