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Friday, April 03, 2015

Legislative Nostalgia, Part Two

       "His lucidity and logic were particularly effective under the 'five-minute' rule.  'Russell,' he said to a Representative from Massachussetts, 'you do not understand the theory of five-minute debate.  The object is to convey to the House either information or misinformation.  You have consumed several periods of five minutes this afternoon without doing either.'
       Reed made his point by narrating, not orating.  Once when engaged in his favorite sport of baiting the adjoining chamber for which he felt a profound disrespect, he described a Presidential election fifty years in the future when by Constitutional amendment the President would be selected from among and by the Senators.  'When the ballots had been collected and spread out, the Chief Justice who presided was observed to hesitate and those nearest could see by his pallor that something unexpected had happened.  But with a strong effort he rose to his feet and through a megaphone, then recently invented by Edison, shouted to the vast multitude the astonishing result:  seventy-six Senators had each received one vote.'
       Discussing economic privilege during a tariff debate he told how, when walking through the streets of New York and contrasting 'the brownstone fronts of the rich merchants with the unrewarded virtue of the people on the sidewalk, my gorge rises,. . .I do not feel kindly to the people inside.  But when I feel that way I know what the feeling is.  It is good honest high-minded envy.  When the gentlemen across the aisle have the same feeling they think it is political economy.'
       When word ran down the corridors that Reed was on his feet, about to speak, gossiping groups dissolved, members hurried to their seats, boredom and inattention vanished as the House listened expectantly for the sculptured prose, the prick of sarcasm and the flash of wit.  Every member coveted the notoriety of debating with Reed, but he refused to be drawn in by the 'little fellows,' reserving himself only for those he considered worthy opponents.
       Reporters, in the hope of eliciting a witticism, were always asking him for comments on the news of the day.  They were not always successful.  Asked to comment on a Papal message, he replied, 'The overpowering unimportance of this makes me speechless.'  Asked what was the greatest problem confronting the American people, he replied, 'How to dodge a bicycle.'
       After his first term, his nomination as Representative of Maine's First District was never afterward contested.  Elections were another matter and he almost lost the one of 1880 when he refused to compromise or equivocate on free silver despite strong 'greenback' sentiment in Maine.  He kept his seat on that occasion by only 109 votes.  But as his fame grew he generally ran ahead of his ticket in the biennial elections.  Even Democrats confessed to 'voting for him on the sly.'  'He suited the taste of New England,' said Senator Hoar of Massachusetts.  'The people liked to hear him on public questions better than any other man not excepting {James G.} Blaine or McKinley.'  The reason was perhaps the same as that given by an Englishman to explain the secret of Palmerston's popularity:  'What the nation likes in Palmerston is his you-be-damnedness!'
       Though Reed scorned fence-building and never encouraged familiarity with the public, among intellectual equals 'no more agreeable companion ever lived.'  In the small world that was then Washington's elite he was a jovial and radiant personality, a poker-player, storyteller and sought-after dinner guest.  At one dinner party when the conversation turned on gambling, another famous raconteur, Senator Choate of New York, remarked somewhat unctuously that he had never made a bet on a horse or card or anything else in his life.  'I wish I could say that,' a fellow guest said earnestly.  'Why caan't you?' asked Reed with his peculiar twang.  'Choate did.'
       His table talk was enriched by the resources of a cultivated mind.  His favorite poets were Burns, Byron and Tennyson, his favorite novel Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  He habitually read Punch, and Balzac in the original, of whom he said, 'There is hardly a book of his which is not sad beyond words.'  He had learned French after he was forty and kept a diary in that language 'for practise.'  The existence of a national library is owed to Reed, whose persistent and eloquent insistence finally wore out the natural parsimony of the House to secure adequate funds for the Library of Congress.
       'No one was ever better to listen to or a better listener,' said Lodge, 'for his sympathies were wide, his interests unlimited and nothing human was alien to him.'  'We asked the Tom Reeds to dinner,'  wrote a young friend of Lodge from New York, 'and he was delightful.'  Shortly afterward Reed, an advocate of civil service reform, obtained for the young man a post in Washington on the Civil Service Commission and thereafter, whenever the new Commissioner needed help on the Hill, Reed was ready to give it.  Later when the young man from New York bestrode the national scene, Reed composed probably the most memorable tribute ever made to him:  'Theodore, if there is one thing more than another for which I admire you, it is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.'  With a little less prescience he had also said, 'Theodore will never be President; he has no political background.'  The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman, pgs. 122-24.

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