- - Monday, July 21, 2014


It’s been a year since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dubbed Harry Reid the nation’s worst Senate majority leader in history after adopting, contrary to his word, the “nuclear” option that requires only a simple majority for presidential appointees to be approved by the upper house.

Of course, Mr. Reid’s outlandish mouth before and since Mr. McConnell’s declaration has more than confirmed placing the Nevada leader at the top of the Senate’s rogues gallery. His latest verbal spew, condemning the “five white men” on the Supreme Court for their Hobby Lobby decision, illustrates that even the person in charge of the Senate’s agenda can fail a sixth-grade current-events test.

Without doubt, the history of prior majority leaders who were controversial bears out Mr. Reid’s richly deserved status. For starters, there was no majority leader in the Senate until 1920, with committee chairmen and members with seniority pulling the chamber’s strings. Then, when Democrat Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama, after serving as speaker of the House from 1911 to 1915, won the first nod, he was actually a minority leader because Republicans were in a majority, but didn’t elect a top person until 1925. So, as minority leader, he had considerable power over the leaderless GOP.

Underwood’s opposition to the Ku Klux Klan put him in hot water with Southern Democrats who had little interest in his campaign. “I maintain that the organization is a national menace,” Underwood said loudly. “It is either the Ku Klux Klan or the United States of America. Both cannot survive. Between the two, I choose my country.” Although Underwood lost the fight against formal condemnation of the Klan by the Democratic National Convention in 1924, and lost his presidential bid as well, he was honored, in retrospect, by inclusion in the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame, which noted his leadership in the Senate was “knowledgeable, alert and cool.”

Another majority leader, Democrat Joseph Taylor Robinson of Arkansas, who served from 1933 to 1937, was dubbed “Scrappy Joe” by the press because of his disposition to throw not only harsh rhetoric, but also physical threats to his Senate colleagues. In fact, at the Democratic National Convention in 1920, he punched a guard in the face for questioning his credentials for entry. Still, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal minion, he had good rapport on both sides of the aisle and was a vigorous opponent of anti-Catholic prejudice in the wake of the failed presidential candidacy of Al Smith in 1928.

Unlike Robinson, who was unanimously elected as majority leader, Democrat Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky captured the top post by a single vote in 1937. Indeed, his senatorial career was controversial from the start, winning the seat in 1926 by the margin of 287,997 to 266,657. Long an advocate of Prohibition, Barkley disappointed followers in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1932 by urging a return to legal booze.

Once elected majority leader, Barkley had a huge majority of Democrats, but the party was deeply divided. Southerners opposed President Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially his court-packing plan that Barkley had to defend. However, the measure failed, with the press calling the majority leader “bumbling Barkley.” Still, Barkley wasn’t afraid to take on FDR on revenue matters. When Roosevelt in 1944 vetoed a tax increase passed by both houses as too little, Barkley the next day urged his colleagues to override the veto. Then he resigned his post as majority leader. Not only was the veto overridden by a huge margin, but the Senate the next day reinstated him by a unanimous vote.

Not surprisingly, Barkley got the cold shoulder from Roosevelt who, before the revenue incident, was inclined to select him as his running mate in 1944. Instead, the president chose Harry S. Truman. No matter, when Truman ran for the White House in 1948, he chose Barkley as his running mate — and won. The oldest person at age 71 to be inaugurated as veep, Barkley tried to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1952 when Truman decided not to run, but he failed. In 1954, however, he ran for the Senate again and won, serving for two years until a heart attack during the midst of a rousing campaign speech ended his life.

As for Mr. Reid, not only is he without redeeming political purpose, but he’s just dumb, as illustrated by his “five white men” reference to the Supreme Court.

Here’s a hint, Harry: What about Associate Justice Clarence Thomas?

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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