Newt, Bill Could Learn From Speaker Tom Reed

Public opinion poll results may be what they talk about on the Sunday morning yak-yak programs, but when predicting the outcome of elections, most students of the game simply look to see who’s got the most money. So Gerry Ferraro beats Mark Green, but she in turn is beaten by Chuckie Schumer, and then Chuckie Cheese gets beaten by Pothole Al, who’s got almost as much money as President Ali Pasha.

When not meeting with his lawyers or porking damsels, the National Phallus can be seen here, there and everywhere, trolling for money. He’s like a fly on a dirty kitchen table. Nibble, nibble, up in the air, and down again and more nibble, nibble, in no pattern of movement that makes sense to non-flies. What does he do with the millions he raises? Buy back stained dresses and old tape recordings from various retired Presidential porkees? My God! Maybe he’s thinking of running in 2004.

His fellow fly, Newt Gingrich, is no less assiduous in the bagman business, although of late his money runs have been getting less publicity than formerly. Fines and censures notwithstanding, we know one thing the Speaker of the House has in mind for some of the money he’s getting. Mr. Gingrich is toying with the idea of running for President.

No matter how much money he raises, the odds are against him. It has been 153 years since someone who had held the Speaker’s job was elected President. Even then, it wasn’t a direct move from the speakership to the White House. James K. Polk, who had held the post for two embattled terms, went on to win the big prize only after he had left the House and gone home to be governor of Tennessee. Away from the Capitol, he was able to de-ickify himself of some of the muck which often dirties the one who holds the job.

After he had moved on from the speakership to the Senate, James G. Blaine, once known throughout the nation as “the continental liar from the State of Maine,” actually got himself the Republican nomination in 1884. One of the reasons that he lost was that, like Mr. Gingrich, he was dogged by allegations concerning his honesty in money matters. His opponent, Grover Cleveland, had to overcome accusations of unlicensed porking, but the voters preferred a philanderer to a thief.

We are not always stuck with a choice of churls. But good men’s lives don’t make for interesting reading. Take Tom Reed. No speaker’s name is more obscure than his, though he once bulked on the national scene as large as Newt does now.

It is thanks to Czar Reed, as he always has been known when he is known at all, that the majority party in the House, Democratic or Republican, reduces the minority party to the status of eunuchs. The years in which the Republicans held the House, Reed appointed all the committee chairmen and all the members of each committee. He ran everything, and the other party never got a look-see.

Benton McMillin, a Democratic member of the Rules Committee, writing of the treatment of Democrats on that panel under Tom Reed in the 1890’s, recalled that, “The Speaker would send for me and say: ‘Well, Mac, Joe and McKinley and I have decided to perpetrate the following outrage, of which we all desire you to have due notice!’ Whereupon he would read and give me a copy of whatever special order had been adopted by the majority of the committee.”

“Until Reed took over and implemented the famous Reed Rules, you had lots of opportunities for minority party obstruction in the House of Representatives,” remarks an anonymous scholar bureaucrat at the Library of Congress. “The modern House commenced with his speakership.”

Until Reed revamped the place and turned it into something approximating the institution Newt Gingrich runs, the House was the home of the dilatory motion, of the filibuster and the legislative obstructionist. The most infuriating method of sabotage was the “disappearing quorum.” Under the rules of the pre-Reed House, a quorum consisted of a majority of the members present and voting. Hence, the work of the House would be brought to a full stop when members would sit in the chamber silently, not voting.

“What he essentially did,” the nameless scholar bureaucrat explains, “was to break the ability of the minority party to frustrate the majority. Reed was famous for a quote to the effect that if majority rule is difficult, minority rule is simply intolerable. The Reed Rules riveted into the House of Representatives the notion, which still prevails to a very large extent today, that the place is a majoritarian institution.”

Reed went after the Republican nomination in 1896 and lost because he had campaign finance problems. But while Mr. Gingrich’s and Mr. Clinton’s difficulties arose over taking money, Reed’s arose over refusing it, much to the frustration of his campaign manager, who told the following story:

“In the campaign of 1896 Collis P. Huntington sent for me three times-that is to say he asked his ‘man Friday’ … to request me to call upon him at the Normandie Hotel. I paid no attention to it until the third request came. I then went to Mr. Reed and told him that Huntington had for the third time asked me to call upon him.

‘Why don’t you go and see him?’ drawled Reed.

‘Well, I think I know what he wants of me,’ said I.

‘What do you think he wants of you?’ drawled Reed again.

‘I think he wants to make a contribution to your campaign fund,’ said I.

‘Well, now, if I were you, I’d call on him. You’ll find him interesting in many ways; he’ll talk to you of art and music and a variety of things. I regard Mr. Huntington as one of the brainy men of the country, one of the biggest men in the country; go and see him but remember,’ and he held up his index finger, pointed it at me and continued, ‘Not one dollar from Mr. Huntington for my campaign fund!’

I did find him, as Reed said I would, most entertaining. He talked of a number of things and finally blurted out, ‘How are you getting along with Mr. Reed’s campaign?’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘about as well as can perhaps be expected under all the circumstances.’

‘Have you got any money?’ said he.

‘No,’ I replied, ‘none to speak of. You know Mr. Reed is-well, you know him I guess-he doesn’t believe in these large campaign expenditures and wouldn’t permit us to accept anything but a few paltry contributions by a few of his very personal friends.’ As a matter of fact our expenditures were just about $12,000, and I suppose Mark Hanna (campaign manager of the eventual nominee and winner, William McKinley) spent a million. Mr. Huntington was disgusted. ‘Why, you can’t run a campaign without money,’ he said.

‘I know it, but Mr. Reed will not sanction it.’

‘Why,’ interrupted Mr. Huntington, ‘the others have taken it’; and then the cat was out of the bag-he had already contributed to those who were managing [the other ] two candidacies, and now proposed to do the same for Reed. He was taking no chances!

Then and now, it matters little to the donor who gets in office, as long as the donor has the access and influence campaign contributions buy. No bribes here, no dirty deals, no understandings, no smoking guns, no pre-arranged quid pro quos, not even a wink, but should the donor need something, he will get a meeting with the right person, and he will go into the meeting with the odds in his favor.

Reed not only brushed off the rich, he refused to ingratiate himself with constituents by playing pothole politics. When someone requested an obsolete cannon for a war memorial, he replied, “I am not in the old junk business.”

He knew what his beliefs may have cost him. “One, with God, is always a majority,” he said, “but many a martyr has been burned at the stake while the votes were being counted.”

“He wore no shell,” wrote Mark Twain. “His ways were frank and open and the road to his large sympathies was straight and unobstructed. His was a nature which invited affection, compelled it, in fact-and met it halfway. Hence he was ‘Tom’ to the most of his friends, and to half the nation. The abbreviating of such a man’s name is a patent of nobility, and is conferred from the heart.”

It was Mark Twain’s “Tom” who ended his career, not by growing old or losing an election or selling out, but by standing up for what he believed in. Reed, an uncompromising anti-imperialist, used his power to hold off the superpatriots who were hellbent for war against Spain in 1898. He didn’t believe that the Spanish blew up the battleship Maine , and the seizure of Hawaii and the Philippines with its attendant cruelty and near genocide revolted him past endurance.

When McKinley began to cave on the war, Reed disagreed with the President, but his belief that political parties could not function without loyalty and that the Government could not function without parties prevented Reed from making common cause with antiwar Democrats. Willing enough to compromise on ordinary political disputes, Reed would not do so on a matter of principle, so he quit.

Remarking that, “no sail has been trimmed for any breeze nor any doubtful flag ever flown,” he resigned his place in Congress: “I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience, and I cannot now do this thing.”

Newt, Bill Could Learn From Speaker Tom Reed