“Uncle Joe” Cannon, Speaker of the House

These days, watching Nancy Pelosi and her bloodied, defeated Democrats in the US Congress prepare to surrender power to presumptive Speaker John Boehner and his new Republican majority, I can’t help but think of Joseph G. Cannon.

Joe Cannon (R-Illinois) — everyone called him “Uncle Joe” — presided as Speaker from 1903 to 1911, the height of Theodore Roosevelt’s era. When he left Congress in March 1923, he had served almost fifty years and been elected twenty-two times, a record back then. Time Magazine that month put his face on the cover of its first-ever edition. Tall, lanky, and outgoing, always a cigar in his teeth, quick with an off-color joke, a back-slapping poker player, Cannon received 58 votes for president of the United States at the 1908 Republican Convention and had his picture on two different brands of chewing tobacco. Above is a newspaper sketch of him from his glory days.

In most history books, Cannon is cast usually as villain, the arch-conservative on Capitol Hill who routinely blocked TR’s progressive ideas, “the vulgar old man who rules the National house” by one Chicago newspaper.

But Joe Cannon, the most autocratic leader ever to assume a chokehold over the National Legislature, also has the distinction of being the only House Speaker ever to be overthrown by his own members in open revolt, to his face, in public session. It was a rare public rebuke, and a signature victory for the then-rising Progressive Movement. Their anti-Cannon revolt, launched in March 1910 and led by young Nebraska congressman and future senator George W. Norris, played out in full public view, an unprecedented spectacle on the floor of Congress, a three-day parliamentary seige during which Cannon had to filibuster from the Speaker’s chair just to be heard. In the end, Norris and his Progressives succeeded in bringing down not just Cannon but also Republican President Willam Howard Taft and a generation of Washington oligarchs. (The snapshot below shows Cannon and Taft, in top hat, shortly before their respective defeats.)

The lesson for Nancy Pelosi and company, however, is not in Cannon’s defeat, but in his comeback. Joe Cannon was 74 years old at the time he was outsted from the Speaker’s chair in 1910. But rather then stewing in bitterness or self-doubt, he jumped right back into action. Cannon’s Illinois neighbors voted him back into Congress in 1914 where Cannon quickly rebuilt his friendships and reputation. He reinvented himself as elder statesman. And when time came for Congress to put names on its three House Office Buildings in Washington, D.C., they picked Cannon’s immediately.

So don’t fret, Democrats. Yes, there are second acts in American life, thanks in part to Uncle Joe. The pendulum will swing back. There will be another day.

Click here for a few more cartoons and images of Uncle Joe. 

Gasp! Where are the leaders?

My chief reaction to Hillary Clinton’s stunning wins in Texas and Ohio, which have now extended her epic race with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination for at least six more weeks (not unlike the groundhog seeing his shadow) until the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, was this: Fear.

Will so much more of this increasingly ugly campaign help Democrats ultimately defeat John McCain in November to re-take the White House? Or is this turn of events now setting up Democrats to lose all the marbles once again in what otherwise should be a sure-win year?

No, I am not suggesting that Clintin should drop out. She has won her right to compete fair and square by her clean primary wins last week. That’s not the point. The issue is quality.

No, Barack Obama does not deserve a free ride to the nomination. He has a duty to answer questions about the Tony Rezko trial, his views on NAFTA and Israel, his recent staff gaffes, and all the rest — just as Hillary Clinton has a duty to disclosure her tax returns, funding sources for the Clintin library, presidential papers, and explain the basis of her 3 am phone calls. Yes, a tough campaign can make them both tougher fighters in the end, and help clear the air on thorny issues. And yes, this ongoing contest has worked wonderfully so far to build interest, enthusiasm, and turnout.

But all these positives are fragile. And lately, the trend is ominous. We Democrats have a history of bloodying ourselves in internal battles producing weakened, losing candidates. Think Jimmy Carter 1980 or Hubert Humphrey 1968 (and for the historians in the room, Al Smith 1928, James Cox 1920, or even Stephen Douglas 1860).

What bothers me about the Hillary Clinton campaign today is that it seeems to smell blood and has chosen to base its strategy on simply tearing down its opponent. Turning loose dogs of war is always brings risks of the unknown. (See Iraq.) The more she attacks, the more Obama will need to attack back. And if she loses the contest and Obama becomes her collateral damage, losing to McCain in November, this seems to bother her circle less than losing the nomination itself.

And that galls the hell out of me. Because priority number one in 2008 is to win back the White House. Otherwise, this whole terrific primary contest has all been one big banal waste of time.

So now is the time for the Democratic leaders — Al Gore, Nancy Polosi, Joe Biden, so on — to act like leaders. They should step in and restore order. I’d like to see them call a big summit meeting, bring Clinton and Obama together, make them sit side by side, and read them the Riot Act. The message should be simple: Campaign your hearts out, but keep this civil. Strike a deal: Whoever has the most elected delegates once the primaries are over (with whatever special arrangement is made for Florida and Michigan) should be deemed the winner, and the loser should promise to concede then and there.

The Party should refuse to support either one of them who conducts himself or herself in a way to undermine a victory in November.

Personally, I happen to like both of our semi-finalists and think either one would make a terrific candidate. Maybe I’m just over-reacting, being in a grumpy mood from having a skin cancer removed this week. (How about that. I buried the lead. Don’t worry, by the way. It went fine.)

In any event, that’s my rant for this pretty Sunday morning here in Washington. Tonight I fly to Minneapolis (11 degrees and snow) to visit a very likeable client in the very likeable Midwest.

Hope things are well. I’m off for more coffee. –KenA


Gasp!!! It’s been five months now since I last posted anything on this Blog. Is that pathetic, or what? Well, if you thought I was gone, you were wrong. I have not dropped off the face of the earth. You are not rid of me. I have decided to come back.

The truth be know, I have largely shelved my writing-historian life the past five months and happily returned to my first profession, practicing law. Yes, by day, I am a registered, card-carrying Washington lawyer-lobbyist. You can look it up. Here’s a link to my latest public report at OpenSecrets.Org: http://www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists/lobbyist.asp?txtname=Ackerman%2C+Kenneth&year=a&txttype=l ) The work has been interesting and productive and — no apologies here — it’s been lucrative too. Writers have to eat and pay bills, and I like to eat well. And a few months of hourly billings certainly helps.

But so much water has run under the bridge these past few months: Hillary, Obama, McCain, easily the most exciting Presidential sweepstakes in memory, not to mention the ongoing drama between George Bush’s last gasp White House and Nancy Pelosi’s stumbling Congress, and now the economy bumbling over, of all things, subprime mortgages. And that’s not even counting the New York Giants. What woeful, thrilling times we live in. How can a historian be silent?

Yet here I am, sitting silently all these months, a mere spectator. No, I haven’t given up being a fervid political junkie. I continue to read my three newspapers each day (the Washington Post, NY Times, and Roll Call). I listen to POTUS 08 on XM radio, check the DrudgeReport and other internet sites, and tune in pundits for hours on end. No excuses. I like it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But every time I sit down to try and write a Blog post or an article, about politics, history, or anything else, I get distracted. Words dry up. I find other things needing attention. Writer’s block? Perhaps. But these blocks don’t come out of thin air.

Since my last book was published in May 2007 (Young J. Edgar: Hoover the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, 1919-1920), I admit that I’ve researched at least half a dozen good ideas for next topics, including possible narratives about figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, American socialist founder Eugene V. Debs, long-time autocratic House Speaker Joe Cannon, feminist pioneer Victoria Woodhull, John Adams and the Boston Tea Party, and even the adventures of a once-famous British ocean deep-sea diver from the 1880s named Alexander Lambert. All these ideas have great promise, real keepers. But here too, the writers block sets in. I find problem at every turn, and no path out of the forest.

So I’ve made a decision. To start writing again, I need to write. And be published. That’s the only way to beat writers block. And in this modern world of cyberspace, the way you do it is through a Blog. So here I am Blogging — and in this initial effort, I am Blogging in the worst stereotypical way: with a self-absorbed, nascissistic, whiney, inconclusive essay about nothing but myself. But I guess that’s how you start. It doesn’t become literature overnight.

So expect to see me posting more often on this space. What I’ll write about, what shape it will take, ony time will tell. But plan to spent time having Coffee with Ken. I am going into writer’s training. Any encouragement would be appreciated.

So that’s it from the home front. Hope you’ll put up with me in the meantime.

Thanks, and all the best. –KenA

How an anti-war Senator should act.

George W. Norris, circa 1918

Greeting, all, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where my wife Karen and I are enjoying our annual summer beach getaway.

My beach reading this summer included an oldie but goodie, Profiles in Courage by then-senator and future president John F. Kennedy. And among the great stories in it, one particularly caught my eye this year, the one about George W. Norris, the Progressive Republican Senator from Nebraska, who, among other things, dared to defy mob hysteria in 1917 by taking a lonely stand against American entry into what he considered a pointless, terrible war … in his case, World War I.

With all the debate today, in 2007, about how Democrats in Congress under Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should wage their fight against George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq — and at what point principle must stand before politics — Senator Norris and his 1917 stand lays down a good marker.

In January 1917, just two months after having won reelection to the White House on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson already was pushing the country to intervene in the stalemated European contest that already had cost millions of lives since 1914. War fever swept the country, fanned by the recently-released Zimmerman telegram (in which a German diplomat allegedly promised Mexico return of Texas and California in return for its helping it launch attacks against the US) and German submarine warfare on the high seas. President Wilson that month tried to turn the heat up another notch by insisting that Congress pass the Armed Ship Bill, authorizing him to arm American merchant vessels carrying armaments to England, and the House passed it within days on a vote of 403 to 13. Anyone who opposed this measure was labelled a coward, a traitor, or unAmerican.

But Norris smelled a rat. Norris in 1917 was a freshman Senator, one-time school teacher and small-town lawyer old enough to have lost an older brother in the Civil War. To Norris, armed American ships meant provoking the Germans into an incident that could spark war without any sober debate, and he bristled at the broad grants of Presidential authority in the Bill’s small print. Behind it, Norris suspected the hand of American financiers and munitions makers who had banked heavily on the Allied side in the war and now saw their investments at risk. And Norris was not willing to shed American blood to bail out corporations.

So Norris and a small band of like-minded Senators, including Wisconsin’s Progressive Robert LaFollette, launched a filibuster to kill the Armed Ship Bill. Their strategy was to use the Senate calendar and stall a final vote until noon on March 4, 1917 — Inauguration Day — when the Senate would adjourn sine die.

Norris won. The filibuster worked. But there was bloody hell to pay for it. The country screamed treason, stupidity, and arrogance. President Wilson — who would prove himself no friend of free speech during the War — led the verbal assaults. The fact is, most Nebraskans, most Americans, even most Progressives disagreed stridently with Norris. Even JKF, writing his book decades leter, felt the need to distance himself from Norris’s position: “It is not now important whether Norris was right or wrong,” he wrote. “What is now important is the courage he displayed in support of his convictions.”

Norris, stunned by the outcry, felt compelled to ask the Governor to a call a special recall election to allow Nebraskans the chance to vote him out of office. At the same time, he went home and called a town hall meeting in Omaha to confront critics. Over three thousand people came and Norris could not find a single friend to share the stage with him. Alone, he stood in front of the mob and said simply “I have come to speak the truth.” Then he went on: “Even though you say I am wrong…, has the time come when we can’t express our opinions in the Senate, where we were sent to debate such questions, without being branded by the moneyed interests as traitors?”

Norris didn’t change any minds about the War, but he won the crowd’s respect. Te Governor felt no need for a recall election, and Norris went on to serve many more years in the US Senate. Despite Norris’s victory against the Armed Ship Bill, President Wilson quickly asserted executive power to arm US vessels without Congress’s permission, and within a few months the country had entered a European bloodbath whose merits even today remain a matter of debate. Wilson called it a struggle “to make the world safe for democracy,” but World War I’s more immediate fruits were 16 million dead, millions more wounded or displaced, a peace treaty rejected in the US, and the planting of seeds for even more bloodshed 20 years later in World War II.

Now, fast forward to today, September 2007, as Washington, D.C. braces for what promises to be a grueling showdown over the future of America’s role in Iraq — with President Bush showing every sign of intending to stick to his surge-based war plan at least long enough to pass it off to a next president in 2009, and Congressional Democrats in apparent disarray over how to confront him. Where is the George Norris of 2007? Can anyone on Capitol Hill claim to be living up to the standard of courage, skill, and integrity he set in fighting Woodrow Wilson’s war plans in 1917? I don’t ask this as a rhetorical question. The threat to our country today is as great as it was in 1917, the issues as complex, and the need to cut through double talk on all sides just as urgent.

I hope the roster will be long. JFK published his original edition of Profiles in Courage fifty years ago, in 1955. Perhaps a next edition will include a few names of current members of Congress with the vision and tenacity to lead in confronting today’s morass, waiting to make their marks in during the struggles over the next few weeks.

That, at least, is my hope, sitting here at Cape Hatteras on this sunny Labor Day weekend, sipping my cup of coffee, looking out over the sand dunes toward the beach beyond.

Thanks for your patience in reading through this long post. All the best. –KenA