Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Uncle Joe" Cannon, the real ghost haunting John Boehner this summer as Speaker of the House.

Joseph Gurney Cannon (R.-Ill.) circa 1920, after being
toppled as House Speaker, voted out of Congress,
then elected to return. 

I have bent your ears many times about Joseph G. Cannon (R.-Ill.), the legendary, autocratic Speaker of the House who ultimately was stripped of power in a dramatic House floor revolt back in 1910.   (See "Uncle Joe" Cannon, November 10, 2010.)  Cannon was such a towering figure that Congress ultimately decided to name its signature building after him, the Cannon House Office Building, today one of the most familiar landmarks in Washington, D.C.  

Cannon on the cover of Time Magazine, 1923.
This past week, the painful, sometimes-humiliating spectacle of our modern Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ill.), trying to corral his divided Republicans, including over 80 freshman "Tea Party" members, in the high-stakes confrontation over raising the federal debt ceiling, has once again put Joe Cannon in the news.   Commentators as diverse as Doris Kearns Goodwin (CNN), Norman Ornstein (New York Times Book Reviewand Jeffrey Lord (American Spectator) all have invoked Cannon's name in analyzing Boehner and modern Capitol Hill.   

Were we better off in the old days when Capitol Hill oligarchs like Cannon could twist arms and intimidate Congressmen into swallowing a deal they didn't like -- in contrast to Boehner's repeated last week frustrations with his Tea Party faction?  Did those old days ever really exist at all?    

Joe Cannon truly is the ghost haunting Capitol Hill this summer.    Cannon -- everyone from president to shoe shine boy 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 a smart 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.

Washington Star front-page cartoon the morning after
Cannon is stripped of powers.

"Uncle Joe" could be charming, but also coarse and tough.  As Speaker, he felt perfectly entitled to punish recalcitrant members of his own party in ways no modern Speaker would dare.  He stripped them off committees, silenced them on the House floor, cut off their patronage, insulted or abused them, and even recruited challengers in their home districts.  

His caucus mostly went along -- it was simply the way things worked back then.  Even President William Howard Taft, when Cannon asked him to cut off White House patronage from a few renegade Congressmen who opposed Cannon on a rule change,  followed orders.  

What connects the Joe Cannon of 1910 to John Boehner today, however, is not that Cannon was a bully.  Rather, it's the opposite: that Cannon the autocrat ultimately fell on his face.

Congressman George W. Norris (R-Neb), leader
of the anti-Cannon uprising, circa 1913.
In March 1911, those abused junior members in Cannon's caucus finally found the courage and strategy to rebel and strip Cannon of his leadership powers.  The revolt, 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 insurgents (they would later call themselves Progressives) succeeded in bringing down not just Cannon but also President Taft and an entire class of Washington's old guard.

Congress was broken and dysfunctional in 1910 under Joe Cannon no less than today.  But that generation found a way to fix things.  By toppling Cannon in 1910, they demonstrated that old fashioned bosses could no longer rule the roost on Capitol Hill.  Since then, Speakers have had to walk on eggs, build support, and cater to all factions in their caucus.  

In short, John Boehner had it tougher than Joe Cannon.  Boehner never had the option (nor apparently any inclination) to be a bully, to strong-arm members of his caucus -- even when they embarrassed him by balking at his key proposed to resolve the debt ceiling impasse.  Instead of twisting arms or buying support with earmarks, committee slots, or campaign cash, Boehner had to do the hard work of dealing with his Republicans -- all of them -- as adults, entitled to respect, listening to their concerns and addressing them.   It was not easy, and he did it gracefully. 

Whatever one thinks of the final Debt Ceiling deal (personally, not very much), I do give a hats off to John Boehner for living with the ghost of Joe Cannon.   Now, if only we could get Boehner to work with Democrats.  

 [So how did Joe Cannon bounce back from this personal black eye to the point that, just a few years later, Congress would name its Office Building after him?   More on that some other time.... ] 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Let me proof to speaker of the house Mr. John Boehner that he don't need a partner on his chair.

1. John Jay chief Justice 1789 The Judiciary Act as 28 U.S.C. § 1350.

2. John Marshall (1800-1835) for judicial review, by disregarding purported laws if they violate the Constitution.
Rule of Law: if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that God shower on a state. Every citizen is subject to law and no ruler is above the law except God.

3.100 years ago our 28th president Widroow Wilson stated (9/25/1919) "I'am the most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is now controlled by it system of credit. We are no longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men."

4. John Marshall Supreme Court Chief Justice stated "The power to tax is the power to destroy".

5. Mr. Boehner finally you can bring in light Joe Cannon it is your privilege and honor to speak words that would benefit every citizens, the future of our children and strengthen our government.