A wide spot in my imagination.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sam Rayburn, Where Are You?

The past often seems prettier than the present or the future. The sharp edges of history are often blurred by the rose-colored glasses through which we look backward.

No, I don't want to go back to the days of coal oil lamps or picking my own cotton or driving wagons. But allow me one misty-eyed plea to the past: Sam Rayburn where are you?

Sam Rayburn was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1940 to 1961. His term was interrupted twice when his party lost control of the House from 1947-1948 and 1953-1954.

Sam Rayburn is from my neck of the woods (Northeast Texas), and I worked for five years for the congressman who later represented Rayburn's District. In fact, when I worked in the House from 1991-1996, I think some of our constituents thought "Mr. Sam" was still their representative, even though he had been dead for 30 years. So, I'm not unbiased here. I have an attachment to the old, dead Speaker.

Biased or not, I think our country could use him and his type.

Rayburn was not perfect. He was a son of the South and a man of his times, and no doubt those labels showed forth from time to time.

But Rayburn had some traits the country needs.

First, he was by all accounts a fairly shy man. Outside of work, Rayburn didn't have much to say. In contrast, this morning, before the dust even settled on yesterday's election results, the incoming Speaker of the House was bragging and braying on TV, challenging the president and claiming to be the voice of America. Then, this evening, the outgoing Speaker of the House was trumpeting her own successes and staking her claim as martyr for a cause.

In addition to being shy, Rayburn was private. Not only did he keep quiet about most things, he really kept quiet about himself. An example: Rayburn's brief marriage failed. And he said absolutely nothing about it. Compare that to Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, John Ensign and their woefully public tawdriness.

Rayburn paid his own way. He never accepted gifts from political favor-seekers. Once he even paid his own way on a Congressional fact-finding trip to the Panama Canal. Reading about Tom Delay's trial about money-laundering and what-not makes me ask even louder: Sam Rayburn, where are you?

Twice Rayburn lost the Speakership, turning over the gavel to his good friend, Massachusetts Republican Joseph Martin. What's notable in the sentence is "good friend." Imagine Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner sitting down for burgers and beer. Maybe they do. I hope they do. But Rayburn and Martin developed a friendship that transcended partisan differences.

The story is told that, after one change in power in the House, Rayburn and Martin agreed not to swap offices. In the Capitol, where "importance" is often defined by real estate, that non-move was an act of humility.

Many lines of political wit are attributed to the dry and reserved Rayburn. My favorite is: "Any jackass can kick a barn down. It takes a carpenter to build one." Sam Rayburn, carpenter, where are you?


  1. Now a new set of jackasses get to try their hand at carpentry. They won their opportunity fair and square, because they convinced the electorate that the last bunch of jackasses set the joists crooked, which is pretty much how the last jackasses go in. Until the barn starts going up again, no sense letting any of those jackasses think their jobs are safe; "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."