Unlike the Brylcreem ad currently warming the power chair, Thomas B. Reed, Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1890s, had little hair and a great sense of humor.
It is doubtful he ever dissolved into tears.
James Grant, the founder of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, offers a lively account of the Speaker and his era in “Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster.”
We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.
Hoelterhoff: I never heard of this guy. How did you decide to write about him?
Grant: Barbara Tuchman included him in her wonderful book about the turn of the 20th century.
And somewhere in my reading I came across the following. John Singer Sargent, the great American portraitist, was commissioned by Reed’s friends to paint his likeness.
Reed has a very Delphic face, utterly un-pictorial. Sargent went through one draft, tried another. It was hopeless. At the unveiling there was a shocked, dignified silence until Reed said to break it: “Well, I hope my enemies are satisfied.”
And with that I was hooked and read more.
Reed was an unfailing delight, as, indeed, Sargent found him to be as well -- except for his face.
Hoelterhoff: He did have a lot of body.
Grant: He said no gentleman ever weighs more than 200 pounds, as a matter of principle, but he himself pushed 300. He was certainly one of the great politicians of his age and, I dare say, the funniest American statesman. He was certainly among the most imaginative.
Hoelterhoff: Humor seems in short supply in Washington. I guess he didn’t dissolve into tears like John Boehner?
Grant: He frequently dissolved into laughter, and he caused the House to do it, too.
Reed was known for his imperturbability. He was a sphinx on the Speaker’s chair, especially when he was besieged by the screaming masses -- which he was periodically -- and especially during his great triumph when he singlehandedly broke what was not quite a filibuster, but an organized campaign of noncompliance by the minority.
Hoelterhoff: What does that mean?
Grant: The Constitution requires that for the Congress to do any business it must have a quorum. The Constitution, however, is silent on whether people so assembled are actually present if they refuse to acknowledge their presence.
So let’s say that you, the Speaker, are sitting at the head of a hall full of people. Obviously, it’s a quorum -- there are hundreds of people there -- but half of them refuse to open their mouths when the roll call is sounded. They are present corporeally, but are they present politically?
For decades the House decided, no, they were not present. All you had to do if you were a willful minority was to be mum during the roll call, and the only business the House could do was adjourn.
And so for week after week, bills would languish, speeches would not be made, and the House would sit still. The country would look on it and say, What are we paying these people for?
The Democrats, then the party of Jefferson and small government, reveled in this unproductivity. They thought it was a great thing for the House to do nothing.
Hoelterhoff: Because they weren’t spending any money?
Grant: They weren’t spending any money. They weren’t interfering in anything. They weren’t meddling.
Republicans were the party of Hamilton and intervention. They wanted to improve harbors. They wanted to build the Library of Congress. They had great designs in foreign policy. And the Republicans wanted action. They wanted progress.
Reed himself was all for the cause of modernity. He would have dinner with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and he sat in open-mouthed awe at the wonders of the age -- at electricity, at the illumination of the cities, at the prospect of international direct-dial telephony.
He saw all this coming and he compared what he saw and imagined with how he lived: in the dark ages. No progress, no modernity. So he resolved personally to impose it on the House. He wanted the House to do business, and hence the drama and importance of his actions in the early 1890s.
Hoelterhoff: How did he change things?
Grant: One day he was sitting at the head of the House and sounded the roll call. And he marked as present those Democrats who had refused to acknowledge their presence.
There erupted a great, great tumult because this was revolutionary. It was an infringement on the hallowed rights of the minority.
Hoelterhoff: And the Democrats adopted his reforms a couple years later.
Grant: The irony and the disappointment of his life was that by bringing the House into the modern age he also brought the American state into the supersized age.
The Democrats had warned everyone who would listen that once you get an activist government, once it gets muscular and interventionist it will go off and do things you wish it hadn’t done.
And sure enough, Reed’s end in politics came with the Spanish-American War, which he opposed.
Grant: He felt that America should bring civilization to places like Kentucky before it presumed to do so for the rest of the world.
Hoelterhoff: Great idea.
Grant: Yes. Teddy Roosevelt rode this trend toward the muscular American state into the history books, whereas Reed retired on principle from the House and went to Wall Street to practice law.
“Mr. Speaker!” is published by Simon & Schuster (426 pages, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here. Grant’s other books include “Bernard Baruch: The Adventures of a Wall Street Legend.”
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and leisure section. All opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)