“Any jackass can kick down a barn, it takes a carpenter to build one.”
So said Sam Rayburn of Texas.
Completely bald, thickly built and one who never forgot his humble beginnings. Sam Rayburn was the looniest serving Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives in our nation’s history. For seventeen years, Rayburn presided over the House and was one of the most influential Speakers to occupy the office, if not the most influential. Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through John F. Kennedy relied upon Sam Rayburn and needed his assistance.
Yet Sam Rayburn acknowledged a leader sometimes needed to be able to follow as well.
“You can’t be a leader and ask other people to follow you unless you know how to follow, too.”
It was Sam Rayburn who said, “If you want to get along, go along.” Yet Speaker Rayburn never expected any congressman to vote against the interests of the district he represented. It was also Rayburn who once opined, “When two men always think alike, only one of them is doing any thinking.”
Rayburn was a strong leader and abided by a philosophy he once outlined, “You cannot lead people by trying to drive them. Persuasion and reason are the only ways to lead them.”
Sam Rayburn was born in Roane County, Tennessee on January 6, 1882. Rayburn lived in Tennessee until he was five years old, when his family relocated to a cotton farm in Texas. All of Rayburn’s siblings were born in Tennessee, save for the youngest.
Cotton farming was extraordinarily hard work and every member of the family had to contribute to make the family farm a success. Sam Rayburn learned responsibility early and as he spent long days beneath the blistering Texas sun, he dreamed of holding public office. While other boys contemplated games and toys, Sam Rayburn’s imagination flirted with speech making and helping people. At the ripe of age of eight, Sam Rayburn had decided what direction his future would take. Rayburn later said, “After that decision was made, it was settled. I never worried a minute after that about what I ought to do or was going to do.”
Rayburn went to law school and earned his degree, but the young attorney was less interested in practicing law than politics. At age twenty-four, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1906. Rayburn was reelected in 1908 and 1910. During his last term, Rayburn was elected by his colleagues to serve as Speaker of the House. The young representative did not run for reelection in 1912, as he had his sights set on a bigger prize. Rayburn ran for Congress, facing a crowded Democratic primary and many of his opponents had served in office longer and had more experience. The thirty- year-old candidate won and remained in the House of Representatives for the next forty-eight years.
Sam Rayburn came to Congress as Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency. It was an exciting time for a young man to serve in the House. Unfortunately for Rayburn, the decade of the decade of the 1920s belonged to the Republicans, who won back the White House and both houses of Congress. By 1931, the Democrats had won a slim majority in the House and Rayburn’s mentor, John Nance Garner of Texas, was elected Speaker. Sam Rayburn became Chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. That chairmanship took on added importance when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. Rayburn loyally supported the New Deal program of FDR and worked hard to pass the “Truth in Securities” Act. That legislation created the Securities and Exchange Commission in the hope never again would America suffer from a collapse of the stock market as had happened in October of 1929. Rayburn was a busy legislator inside and out of his committee. A number of vital legislative concerns passed through the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Rayburn was especially interested in the Rural Electrification Act. Electricity is something we all take for granted now, but at the dawn of the New Deal, there were millions of Americans, especially in rural areas, that did not have electricity in their homes. The Rural Electrification Act helped those areas form electric cooperatives, which would provide electricity to farm families.
The Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee was a battleground for some of the most controversial bills to pass through Congress. The Public Utility Holding Company Act was bitterly opposed by a host of lobbyists and Congressman Rayburn fought a pitched battle that he won by the narrowest of margins.
From 1933 through 1936, four men had served as Speaker of the House: John Nance Garner, Henry T. Rainey, Joseph W. Byrns, and William B. Bankhead. Garner surrendered the Speaker’s gavel as he had been elected to serve as vice president under Franklin Roosevelt. It was a decision he regretted for the rest of his life. The other three men were far less fortunate than the crusty “Cactus Jack”. Henry T. Rainey died of a heart attack in August of 1934; Joseph W. Byrns died of a heart attack June 6, 1936. William B. Bankhead had been in frail health for sometime when he finally became Speaker after Byrns died in 1936. Bankhead lasted four years and was feeling well enough to make a run for the vice presidential nomination of his party in 1940 despite President Roosevelt’s own stated preference for Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Bankhead was bitterly disappointed when he did not win the nomination, but ever a loyal Democrat, he went to Chicago to make a radio speech on behalf of the Roosevelt – Wallace ticket and was later found in his hotel room unconscious. Bankhead died shortly thereafter of a stomach hemorrhage. Rainey, Byrns and Bankhead had all been elected Majority Leader before being elevated to the Speaker’s chair.
Sam Rayburn was elected Majority Leader in 1937 and succeeded the late Will Bankhead as Speaker of the House. Rayburn had finally reached the pinnacle of power and his own cherished ambitions. Like most every breathing national politician, the vice presidential and presidential bee occasionally buzzed around his bonnet, although he never made a serious bid for either office. Rayburn was content to remain Speaker and he was a relatively simple man who enjoyed many of the simple pleasures of life.
Rayburn was a scrupulously honest man. Many of his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives, especially those who were attorneys, had clients affiliated with various special interests. When the Rayburn’s senior lawyer partner brought him his share of a monthly fee paid by one of the special interests, the young lawyer refused it. During his forty-eight years in Congress, Rayburn went on exactly one inspection tour and insisted on paying his own way. Even when traveling on speaking tours across the country, the ornery Speaker refused expense money.
Sam Rayburn lived in a simple apartment while in Washington; in fact, that apartment was the cause of a serious disagreement between the Speaker and his wife. The sole marriage of Rayburn’s life was to Metze Jones, the sister of Texas Congressman Marvin Jones. The forty-five year old Rayburn married twenty-six year old Metze, who hated her husband’s modest apartment. Nor did she much like Rayburn’s fondness for whisky and love for playing poker with his friends. Metze didn’t frankly much like Washington, D. C. for that matter. After three months, Metze went home to Texas and never returned. The Rayburns quietly divorced; so quietly in fact, some of Rayburn’s friends never knew he had even been married. It was a sore spot with the intensely private Sam Rayburn and he never spoke about his marriage to anyone. Metze Jones remarried and her own grandson had no idea his grandmother had once been married to Speaker Sam Rayburn. He recalled he had never once heard his grandmother talk about Rayburn.
Years later, Sam Rayburn would tell one friend he lamented the absence of a “little towheaded boy” to go fishing with. Rayburn admitted not having children was the greatest regret of his life.
Rayburn owned a comfortable two-story home near Bonham, Texas. The Speaker had saved his money and bought 121 acres where he had cattle and built the house he shared with his sister, Lucinda. “Miss Lou” ran the Rayburn homestead and their brother, Tom, came to live with them after a time. Eventually, Rayburn’s property grew to 250 acre farm and 900 acres of ranch property.
Rayburn bragged that his home was “prettier than Mount Vernon.”
One simple pleasure Rayburn thrived on was recalled by William “Fishbait” Miller, Doorkeeper of the House during much of the Speaker’s reign. Rayburn apparently craved sliced tomatoes and raw onions when in season and ate little else for weeks. Miller remembered it was very difficult to get near Rayburn during those weeks.
Throughout his long Congressional career, Rayburn paid close attention to his own people. As Speaker, he constantly reminded his staff the letters scrawled on lined paper were even more important to him than those typed on elegantly engraved stationery.
“I always say without prefix, without suffix and without apology that I am a Democrat,” Sam Rayburn said.
Still, his loyalty to his party ended when it threatened his constituents and Texas. President Harry Truman asked Congress for legislation which adversely affected those states which produced considerable quantities of natural gas. Rayburn opposed Truman’s effort. Rayburn also kept the economy of Texas in mind when appointing members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the committee charged with writing tax laws. Few Congressmen were rewarded with an assignment to the Ways and Means Committee who supported the repeal or reduction for the oil depletion allowance.
Sam Rayburn’s affection for whisky and poker caused him to revive a tradition started by his friend John N. Garner. Cactus Jack would immediately adjourn to his hideaway office in the Capitol just as soon as the House had completed its business to open the bar in what he referred to as his “Board of Education”. John Nance Garner installed a bar in the vice president’s formal office, along with a urinal, perhaps to save having to hurry off to the bathroom. When the straight-laced Henry A. Wallace first visited the vice president’s formal office, he recalled the urinal “stinking to high heaven.” He had both the urinal and the bar removed.
Rayburn convened his own “Board of Education” where close friends and associates gathered to enjoy a drink. Harry Truman had just arrived to have a bourbon and water one afternoon when a frantic call came from the White House informing him that President Franklin Roosevelt was dead.
Sam Rayburn was one of those Speakers who cared less about being liked than being respected. While Rayburn was Speaker, there was little doubt about who ran the House of Representatives. Rarely ever called “Sam”, a few addressed him as “Mr. Sam”.
Speaker Rayburn gave the House leadership, but he relied on a vast network of personal friendships and the loyalty of those friends. Rayburn’s reputation for fairness, truthfulness, and integrity served him well. The Speaker had a good sense of humor and an earthy wit. Although he liked expensive suits, he only wore them while in Washington, D. C. Back home in Texas, he favored well-worn clothing and cowboy boots. Whatever his garb, Sam Rayburn was utterly without pretension.
In 1951, Rayburn surpassed the record of Henry Clay as the longest serving Speaker of the House of Representatives. By 1961, Rayburn had doubled Clay’s own record of service as Speaker. In 1958 he broke the record of Congressman Adolph J. Sabath for continuous service as a member of the House of Representatives. The following year, Rayburn broke the record held by Joseph G. Cannon, a former Speaker, of forty-six years of noncontinuous service as a Member of Congress.
Rayburn lived long enough to see his own protégé Lyndon Johnson elected vice president; unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see LBJ become president. Rayburn’s close friends knew there was something wrong with the Speaker throughout the spring of 1961. Rayburn had lost his appetite and lost considerable weight. On two occasions Rayburn passed out while in the Speaker’s Chair that summer.
He was clearly ailing, but he shrugged off concerns, saying it was only his “lumbago”. It was not lumbago, but cancer. In September of 1961, Rayburn was told he had cancer. Sam Rayburn wanted to go home and returned to Bonham. Clearly, “Mr. Sam” knew he was ill and he was happy at his home. The cancer spread throughout his entire body and into his brain. The end came quietly and peacefully.
Sam Rayburn slipped away while sleeping November 16, 1961.
Before his death, Sam Rayburn was quoted as saying, “I am one man in public life who is satisfied, who has achieved every ambition of his youth.”
By any measure, Sam Rayburn’s was a rich, full life.