Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Uncle Joe" Cannon, Speaker of the House

These days, watching Nancy Pelosi and her bloodied, defeated Democrats in the US Congress prepare to surrender power to presumptive Speaker John Boehner and his new Republican majority, I can't help but think of Joseph G. Cannon.

Joe Cannon (R-Illinois) -- everyone 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 an 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. Above is a newspaper sketch of him from his glory days.

In most history books, Cannon is cast usually as villain, the arch-conservative on Capitol Hill who routinely blocked TR’s progressive ideas, “the vulgar old man who rules the National house” by one Chicago newspaper.

But Joe Cannon, the most autocratic leader ever to assume a chokehold over the National Legislature, also has the distinction of being the only House Speaker ever to be overthrown by his own members in open revolt, to his face, in public session. It was a rare public rebuke, and a signature victory for the then-rising Progressive Movement. Their anti-Cannon revolt, launched in March 1910 and 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 Progressives succeeded in bringing down not just Cannon but also Republican President Willam Howard Taft and a generation of Washington oligarchs. (The snapshot below shows Cannon and Taft, in top hat, shortly before their respective defeats.)

The lesson for Nancy Pelosi and company, however, is not in Cannon's defeat, but in his comeback. Joe Cannon was 74 years old at the time he was outsted from the Speaker's chair in 1910. But rather then stewing in bitterness or self-doubt, he jumped right back into action. Cannon's Illinois neighbors voted him back into Congress in 1914 where Cannon quickly rebuilt his friendships and reputation. He reinvented himself as elder statesman. And when time came for Congress to put names on its three House Office Buildings in Washington, D.C., they picked Cannon's immediately.

So don't fret, Democrats. Yes, there are second acts in American life, thanks in part to Uncle Joe. The pendulum will swing back. There will be another day.

Click here for a few more cartoons and images of Uncle Joe. 


Unknown said...

What a great site, Ken. I didn't know it existed.

Anonymous said...

I recently found out that I'm related to "Uncle Joe" Cannon. My great grandmother, Esta Mae Cannon, was Joe Cannon's great niece. I love reading about him and his "colorful" personality. It explains a lot of family history. :-)