The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, March 03, 2005
 

Democratic Senate Leader supporting GOP administration


Joseph Robinson, I'm talking about.

I thought the guy was the first Senate party leader to make his mark [1], but his mark online is a pretty shallow one.

In summarising the record of earlier Majority Leaders, Caro in Master of the Senate is building up Lyndon Johnson to provide eponymity, so, naturally, all previous Senate party leaders leave a great deal to be desired [2]. Scott Lucas and Ernest McFarland, the Democratic leaders immediately before LBJ, both failed to return to the Senate after being appointed leader in the final Congress of their term. (Johnson, appointed in the 83rd, was also up for re-election at the end of that Congress, in 1954.)

Caro's accusation against Robinson (p355) is not exactly ineffectiveness:
...he ran his party with a firm hand, dividing up Senate patronage, appointing as Senate employees men loyal to him, disciplining rebellious senators. But he ran it on behalf of the President - no matter who the President happened to be. During the first ten years of his leadership, it was Coolidge and Hoover, and Robinson supported, and had Senate Democrats support, many Republican policies.

Caro gives examples:
he helped Hoover kill government operation of the Muscle Shoals power plant, supplied enough Democratic votes to pass the Hoover tariff, and cut off a proposed Senate investigation of the Power Trust.

(There's a deal of footnoting to be done with that lot!)

Caro continues
Robinson's leadership of the Senate coincided, moreover, with one of the most distressing periods of Senate impotence. During the Depression years of 1930, 1931 and 1932, Democrats held a de facto majority in the Senate [3], but when Wagner, La Follette and Norris proposed measures, many of them backed by a majority of their party [4], to alleviate America's pain, Robinson stood not with them but with President Hoover. In 1931, for example, his party, together with progressive Republicans and independents, favoured a massive drought relief program for America's desperate farmers - and, at first, so did Robinson, himself the son of an impoverished farm family. But when Hoover insisted on a more modest program - a program so meagre as to be all but useless - Robinson abruptly switched to the President's side, calling the liberal proposal "a socialistic dole," in an abject surrender that a fellow southern Democrat, Alben Barkley, called "the most humiliating spectacle that could be brought about in an intelligent legislative body." In 1932, with America still begging for Congressional leadership, Robinson said, "I know there is great unhappiness and dissatisfaction, but I do not think that any legislation can secure correction." "He has given more aid to Herbert Hoover than any other Democrat," Al Smith declared. It was only after the president was Franklin Roosevelt that corrective legislation began to pass.

...and increasingly they were bills for which Robinson, at heart a typical southern conservative, had a deep distaste.


When Robinson complained to FDR, he took no notice, and Robinson kept the conveyor-belt moving.

Caro quotes Joseph Alsop [5] and Turner Catledge [6] in The 168 Days as saying
"Joe's job is to keep the Senate pleasingly obedient" to the "commands" of "his beneficent master".

And Alsop and Catledge point to a particular source of breaches in party discipline:
Huey Long "drove Joe nearly mad. He was outskirmished again and again in guerilla warfare on the floor."

Long was shot on September 8 1935; Robinson died less than two years later, on July 14 1937, supposedly as a result of battling for Roosevelt's court-packing bill.

Robinson rates one dead-tree biography - Joe T. Robinson: Always a Loyal Democrat by Cecil Edward Weller - but, as I said, is surprisingly neglected online.

I suspect I'll be coming back to him by and by.

  1. The first official Senate Republican leader was, I see, Charles Curtis, famous for being the first (and only) Indian in the White House (as Hoover's Vice-President). From memory, he was some part a Kaw.

  2. I'm not denying it, merely spotting a mile-wide story arc.

  3. The nominal party strengths were, for the 71st Congress, 56-39-1, and for the 72nd, 48-47-1. The one Independent is Henrik Shipstead, Farmer-Labor (MN); Robert LaFollette (whom I'm distressed to learn is spelt online La Follette just about as often, including in his Congressional bio) ran as a Republican in 1928 - he ran as a Progressive in 1934 and 1940, before losing to Joseph McCarthy in the GOP primary in 1946.

    By the 75th, there were four senators in the Other column: LaFollette, Shipstead and Lundeen (F-L) and Norris (Independent Republican).

  4. Wagner is the only Democrat of the three named. What does Caro mean?

  5. Adulator of Kennedy and that little war way down yonder in Vietnam he got involved in.

  6. Who crops up in the Tad Szulc/Orville Dryfoos/JFK pre-Bay of Pigs farrago (January 30).


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