Getting rid of Uncle Joe

A cautionary tale for incumbents: Joe Cannon ruled Congress until, one day, he didn't

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He grew up when the Wabash country still had a frontier ethic, came to power as America was sensing its own potential for power and became perhaps the most powerful man in William Howard Taft's Washington. He smoked cigars by the score and wore a felt hat at his desk as well as in the street. He was Speaker John Joseph Gurney Cannon, and the rebellion against his despotism occurred 100 years ago this week.

But the revolt against Cannon, known in the capital as Uncle Joe, is no historical oddity deserving to be remembered merely as a colorful episode in an America long vanished. It was nothing short of a revolution that wrested power from those who were using the rules of Congress to thwart the people's wishes -- and a chilling warning to contemporary party leaders who preside over a Congress the voters believe has lost its way.

Speaker Cannon was, as Time put it when he retired from politics in 1923 and became the first person to appear on the cover of the magazine, "the supreme dictator of the Old Guard." But Cannon was more than simply the Iron Duke of American politics, as he was often called.

In his 1903 history of Congress, Republican Rep. De Alva Stanwood Alexander of Buffalo said that "with the possible exception of John Quincy Adams, no one ever entertained the House better." Indeed, the two aspects of Cannon's personality were captured by Blair Bolles, who wrote a 1951 biography that he called "Tyrant from Illinois" even as he titled his first chapter "The Noblest Roman." He wrote of Cannon: "He survives in fame as a tyrant, bursting with mean strategems, but until his sunset years, he was tolerant, benign and fair."

A conservative at war with the progressives, his support of tariffs transformed many conservatives into Cannon critics, eventually dooming his speakership.

"The clock has struck for Uncle Joe," wrote The Wall Street Journal. "He is out of date, not because he is no longer young, but because he has ceased to be representative. He has stood between the people and too many things that they wanted and ought to have, and the fact that he has stood off some things they ought not to have won't save him."

Indeed, the grumbling rumbled throughout the nation. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts Republican, wrote former President Theodore Roosevelt that it would be "impossible" to elect a GOP House "if it was known that Cannon was again to be the speaker."

Cannon eschewed both surrender and compromise as the rebellion, in country and Capitol, simmered. Before long, public impatience with Taft morphed into impatience with Cannon. The principal in Cannon's downfall was Rep. George Norris, the Nebraska progressive who had been spurned by Cannon when he sought a seat on the Judiciary Committee ("Get a reputation," Norris was told dismissively by the speaker) and who was shunned by Cannon even when the two were crowded together in the Capitol's tiny elevators.

So determined was Norris to mount a challenge to Cannon when an opportunity presented itself that he made it a point never to miss a session of the House and to transfer his anti-Cannon resolution to the pocket of whatever suit he wore.

The opportunity came on St. Patrick's Day, when more than 100 members of the House were absent. "Those present stood at Armageddon," Bolles wrote. "The war against Cannonism, long suppressed first by the popularity and then by the skill of the speaker, was in progress."

Then followed a desperate struggle by the speaker to find supporters in the Capitol and at nearby holiday celebrations. In an obsequious as-told-to memoir, Cannon said, "The fact is, the House for the time being had gone a little mad and was no longer governed by reason or established parliamentary procedure."

In the end, 42 Republicans spurned their speaker along with 149 Democrats. As a result, Cannon, a day earlier chairman of the Rules Committee, was removed from the committee altogether and stripped of much of his power as speaker. No longer could he appoint members and chairmen of committees. No longer did he have unrestricted power to permit other lawmakers to speak.

This is how George Rothwell Brown described the spectacle he witnessed from the gallery: "As Mr. Cannon's gavel fell, an epoch in the long and brilliant history of the American House of Representatives came to an end."

Cannon would not resign, however. "A resignation is in and of itself a confession of weakness or mistakes or an apology for past actions," he said. "The Speaker is not conscious of having done anything wrong." But the voters felt otherwise. In the next election, the Republicans were toppled from power in the House.

This was truly a revolution. In his classic 1961 history of the House, George B. Galloway wrote that "Cannon's leadership had grown more and more arbitrary, and the contrast between the democratic mood of the nation and his conduct as speaker had become too pronounced to be ignored."

Nearly a half-century later, Sen. John F. Kennedy selected Norris as one of his "Profiles in Courage," and his description of the 1910 insurrection is telling: The revolt had been against what Kennedy called "a power that placed party above all other considerations, a power that fed on party loyalty, patronage and political organizations."

No contemporary reader can fail to see the comparisons with our own time, when party interest seems to trump the public interest with maddening regularity.

It is true that the rebellion a century ago came from within -- that Norris, utilizing parliamentary tools, outfoxed the greatest parliamentarian of the age. But the Norris rebellion stood for a greater rebellion stirring outside the House chamber -- one of impatience with the way politics were conducted and of insistence that the great private interests of the time give way to a greater public interest.

History never repeats itself, and lessons from the past seldom apply without alteration to contemporary events. But the upheaval that occurred 100 years ago is a sober reminder that a political system designed to represent the greatest aspirations of its people also represents their great frustrations, and that in the end the people get their way.

That message should provide comfort for the impatient -- and trembles for the incumbent.


David M. Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette ( dshribman@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1890).


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