About Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn
Samuel Taliaferro "Sam" Rayburn (January 6, 1882 – November 16, 1961) a Democratic lawmaker from Bonham, Texas, who served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for seventeen years, the longest tenure in U.S. history.
Rayburn was born in Roane County, Tennessee, and was baptized by Elder H.G. Ball in the Primitive Baptist Church, also known as Old Line Baptist or Hard Shell Baptist Church. Rayburn graduated from Mayo College (now Texas A&M University-Commerce) in Commerce, which was located in northeast Texas. He attended the University of Texas School of Law while teaching school, and was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1908. Just after being admitted to the bar, he won election to the Texas House of Representatives, beginning his first term in 1909. During his second two-year term in the Texas House, he was elected Speaker of the House at the age of twenty-nine. The next year, he won election to the United States House of Representatives in District 4. He entered Congress in 1913 at the beginning of Woodrow Wilson's presidency and served in office for almost forty-nine years (more than twenty-four terms), until the beginning of John F. Kennedy's presidency.
Though a menacing and powerful presence on the House floor, Rayburn was incredibly shy outside of work.
He had married once, to Metze Jones (1897–1982), sister of Texas Congressman Marvin Jones and Rayburn's colleague, but the marriage ended quickly, though no reason was given. Biographer D.B. Hardeman guessed that Rayburn's work schedule and long bachelorhood, combined with the couple's differing views on alcohol, contributed to the rift. The court's divorce file in Bonham, Texas, has never been located, and Rayburn avoided speaking of his brief marriage. One of his greatest, most painful regrets was that he did not have a son, or as he put it in Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, "a towheaded boy to take fishing."
Speaker of the House
On September 16, 1940 at the age of 58, and while serving as Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Rayburn became Speaker of the House upon the sudden death of Speaker William Bankhead. Rayburn's career as Speaker was interrupted only twice: 1947–1949 and 1953–1955, when Republicans controlled the House. During those periods of Republican rule, Rayburn served as Minority Leader. However, he so disliked the term "minority leader" that he asked to be referred to as the "Democratic Leader" during those interim four years when the office of Speaker was held by the Republican Joseph W. Martin, Jr. of Massachusetts, actually a close personal friend of Rayburn's.
Himself a protege of Vice President of the United States John Nance Garner, Rayburn was a close friend and mentor of Lyndon B. Johnson and knew Johnson's father Sam from their days in the Texas Legislature. Rayburn was instrumental to LBJ's ascent to power, particularly his unusual and rapid rise to the position of Minority Leader; Johnson had been in the Senate for a mere four years when he assumed the role. Johnson also owed his subsequent elevation to Majority Leader to Rayburn. Like Johnson, Rayburn did not sign the Southern Manifesto.
Also, as Speaker of the House, in the interest of the United States of America, Rayburn forged close friendships and partnerships with legislatures of emerging independent countries and democracies on the continent of Africa, especially Nigeria, a rising political power on that continent. Rayburn was a good friend of The Honorable Jaja Wachuku, who was the first indigenous Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, from 1959 to 1960.
Although many Texas legislators were on the payroll of public service corporations, Rayburn refused to do so. As he recounted in a speech during his congressional campaign:
"When I became a member of the law firm of Steger, Thurmond and Rayburn, Messrs. Thurmond and Steger were representing the Santa Fe Railroad Company, receiving pay monthly. When the first check came after I entered the firm, Mr. Thurmond brought to my desk one-third of the amount of the check, explaining what it was for. I said to him that I was a member of the Legislature, representing the people of Fannin County, and that my experience had taught me that men who represent the people should be as far removed as possible from concerns whose interests he was liable to be called on to legislate concerning, and that on that ground I would not accept a dollar of the railroad's money, though I was legally entitled to it. I never did take a dollar of it. I have been guided by the principle in all my dealings."
This practice of refusing to accept fees from clients who had interests before the Legislature was "virtually unheard-of" at the time. Later, while serving in Congress, a wealthy oil man had a very expensive horse delivered to Rayburn's farm in Bonham. No one apparently knew the oil man delivered the horse except him, Rayburn, and a Rayburn staffer. Rayburn returned the horse.
In shaping legislation, Rayburn preferred working quietly in the background to being in the public spotlight. As Speaker, he won a reputation for fairness and integrity. In his years in Congress, Rayburn always insisted on paying his own expenses, even going so far as to pay for his own travel expenses when inspecting the Panama Canal when his committee was considering legislation concerning it, rather than exercising his right to have the government pay for it. When he died, his personal savings totaled only $15,000, and most of his holdings were in his family ranch.
Rayburn was well known among his colleagues for his after business hours "Board of Education" meetings in hideaway offices in the House. During these off-the-record sessions, the Speaker and powerful committee chairmen would gather for poker, bourbon, and a frank discussion of politics. Rayburn alone determined who received an invitation to these gatherings; to be invited to a "Board of Education" gathering was a high honor.
He coined the term "Sun Belt" while strongly supporting the construction of Route 66. It originally ran south from Chicago, through Oklahoma, and then turned westward from Texas to New Mexico and Arizona before ending at the beach in Santa Monica, California. Arguing in favor of the project, he stated famously that America absolutely must connect "the Frost Belt with the Sun Belt."
Rayburn also had a knack for dressing to suit his occasion. While in Washington, D.C., he would sport expensive suits, starched shirts, and perfectly shined shoes. However, while back in his poorer district in Texas, Rayburn would wear simple shirts, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and cowboy hats. Several politicians have imitated this pattern, including Ronald Reagan's famous example of clearing brush when at home in California, while wearing fine suits in Washington.
The phrase "A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one," is attributed to Rayburn.
James Roosevelt, a U.S. representative from California and a son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, once called Rayburn "the most impressive person in Congress." Rayburn had urged James not to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Representative Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., of New York, whom Rayburn considered not to have taken seriously his duties of office. Thomas Abernethy of Mississippi said that Rayburn was the most influential Speaker in history because he could "work with liberals and conservatives, ran the House with a firm hand but was generous." William Colmer, another Mississippian and the mentor of later Representative and U.S. Senator Trent Lott, described Rayburn as a "very strong parliamentarian" who was far more effective than his successor, John McCormack of Massachusetts, whom Colmer found "wanted to be liked" by his colleagues.
Asked why he never sought the presidency, Rayburn said that he was "born in the wrong place at the wrong time" to undertake a national campaign. Rayburn was Speaker at a time that the greater power in the House rested with committee chairmen. He was himself readily accessible to members; historian Anthony Champagne of the University of Texas at Dallas, a Rayburn scholar, views the Speaker as a "bridge between the northern and southern members" of the Democratic Party. Champagne recalled a report that Rayburn so understood the House that he was "married" to the body and could "feel the sentiment of the members" by merely being in their presence. He was careful to fight his own battles, Champagne said. Rayburn was a mentor to such younger members as Richard Bolling of Missouri, Wilbur D. Mills of Arkansas, Carl Albert of Oklahoma, and Homer Thornberry and Jack Brooks, both of Texas. He was also readily accessible to constituents, who were invited to come to his home in Bonham and visit without prior notice.
Rayburn died of pancreatic cancer in 1961 at the age of 79 and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. By the time of his death, he had served as Speaker for twice as long as any of his predecessors.
His home in Texas, now known as the Samuel T. Rayburn House, was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark.