• U.S.

U.S. Affairs: The Tie That Binds

16 minute read
TIME

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“Puddin’! Sugar Puddin’!” sang a husky feminine voice from the bedroom. A moment later Jane Barkley, a full-blown figure of a woman in scarlet housecoat, her hair in disarray, burst on to the side porch. “Look,” she said, “I’ve got Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs.” Alben Barkley rose from his chair, tilted his wife’s tousled head in his big hands, and smiled. “Well,” he said, “you’re prettier than she is.”

Jane Barkley laughed and rustled back inside to a Paducah beautician who had come to get her all fixed up for the Democratic Convention. Her husband sank back in his chair, and went on relaxing. Without much doubt in this week before renouncing his candidacy, he was the most relaxed of all the Democratic hopefuls. After announcing his candidacy in Washington, he had defied all political rules by retreating to his comfortable brick house in Kentucky. He puttered around his four farms. He went on picnics with Mrs. Barkley; he helped his hired man saw up an old cherry log.

On his last day at home, he came back from the telephone with a glitter in his eye. “You know,” he said gleefully, “they’ve got a campaign button up there in Chicago with a streak of lightning running right through my name!”

Four Day Campaign. The Barkleys—the Veep, Mrs. Barkley and her daughter Jane Hadley—rolled into Chicago three days before the convention, and the candidate’s first act was to pin a lightning button to his lapel. Then, to prove how young he still was at 74, he led a procession five blocks through the sultry heat to his headquarters in the Conrad Hilton Hotel. At a full-dress press conference that afternoon, his eyes looked a little tired, and his pink face seemed slightly drawn with lines of weariness. But as the Veep went through his catalogue of amiable answers and quipped his way through questions about his health, the reporters forgot that age was anything but a delight (yes, he would be nominated; no, he did not want to be Vice President again; yes, he stood on his record as a Fair and New Dealer).

Whenever he walked outside, Democrats crowded around him. All of them —including his five leading rivals—were glad to see him, and couldn’t help showing it. They felt that he was somehow on their side. Alben Barkley was really on everybody’s side: he was Mr. Democrat, the personification of a kind of comradeship that binds together the dissident bundles in the Democratic Party. There was a half-truth, but a deep half-truth, in the campaign placard: “North, South, East, West, all agree Barkley best.” All would have agreed, at that point, that Barkley was second best.

On that agreement rested Barkley’s slim hope for the nomination. It was not good enough. Too many of the party leaders knew that the Democrats are facing the fight of a generation against the G.O.P. ticket of Eisenhower and Nixon.

No Pain. Barkley’s candidacy and withdrawal will not damage the widespread affection in which he is held. His age has only mellowed the robust geniality that has always been his political stock in trade. He combines a strong Methodist sense of personal honesty, loyalty and principles with a belief that U.S. politics is a process of compromise rather than an instrument of doctrinaire philosophy or a weapon of personal ambition. And he discovered early in the game that a sense of humor could ease the process for everybody, including Alben Barkley.

“Alben gets his way,” said a fellow Kentuckian, “but he does it so you never feel it hurt.” In 1949, while Barkley was presiding over the Senate, he ruled against his Southern friends in an attempt to cut off a Southern filibuster. But he lost not a friend thereby. He set the tone by reaching for one of his ageless stories. “I feel,” he said, “somewhat like the man who was being ridden out of town on a rail. Someone asked him how he liked it, and he said that if it were not for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon walk.”

Another Kentuckian describes Barkley as “an extreme extrovert—but one with a feeling for what the other fellow is thinking.” Translated into political terms, this means that he has an uninhibited affection for people, even strangers, and shows it when they put personal demands on his life. Right after his wedding in 1949, he overheard his bride say: “Will someone fix my jacket before I go out and face that mob?” Said the bridegroom: “Why, that’s no mob out there, my dear, that’s the American people.” When the American people began to make sightseeing detours through the driveway of the Barkley farm, Mrs. Barkley was all for putting up a sign: “Private Property, No Trespassing.” But Mr. Democrat put his foot down. Today, despite the fact that a family of strangers recently littered his front lawn with a picnic lunch, the Veep’s only sign is the name on the mailbox: “A. W. Barkley.”

Next to Harry Truman (who has the presidential prestige), Barkley is the most-sought-after speaker in the Democratic Party. His political oratory booms and pulses with echoes of the old-fashioned tub thump (even though he has consciously tried to tone it down for the microphone). Most of his stories are as whiskery and old as Abe Lincoln. But from Atlanta to Manhattan they love them, because they can’t help loving the man who tells the stories. Somehow he stirs an impulse that every splintered Democrat feels more deeply than the jagged hatred of the other splinters. The impulse of love lies close to the Democratic Party’s heart.

A.D.A. & K.K.K. The evidence of love in the Democratic Party is like the evidence of love in an enduring marriage whose partners are conspicuously and bitterly incompatible. Relatively speaking, the Republicans are a far more homogeneous lot than the Democrats; Republicans may argue about the choice of furniture but they speak the same language, and walk—if not hand in hand—in the same general direction, on principle. The Democratic Party has an appeal so broad that no single path of principle could possibly run through it. Instead of a common principle, the Democrats have love.

The modern Democratic Party sprang out of a 19th century coupling of the Southern aristocracy and Tammany Hall. All that the planters and Tammany’s immigrant masses had in common was a distrust of rising U.S. capitalism: the planters distrusted it because industrialism threatened their way of life; the immigrants because competitive business drove painful bargains on wages and hours. To the alliance, the South contributed a taproot that ran back to the Jeffersonian anti-Federalist view of the Constitution. In the years when Republican administrations were encouraging business, the old Jeffersonian slogans appealed to both the planters and the hard-pressed city minorities.

Tammany contributed far more than control of New York City. It became a model for other city machines and it developed a “classless” political structure that ran all the way from the East Side to New York’s Four Hundred.

The weird alliance of city boss and planter was never comfortable, but it was often effective. Even during the long Republican years, the Democrats rarely dropped below 45% of the national vote.

Franklin Roosevelt, scion of the Hudson Valley equivalent of Southern planters, saw that a political house which could hold such disparate elements could be made to hold still wider differences—if only there was enough attention to intraparty love and as little nonsense as possible about overall party principle. He added organized labor, Northern Negroes, socialists and an assortment of millionaires. The door was so wide open that even the Communists got in when they wanted to.

Today the Democratic Party is the home of the most reactionary Southern leaders and the Americans for Democratic Action. It is the party of the least educated and the college professors; of the dispossessed and the millionaire playboys; of Hollywood glamour-pusses and Tobacco Road; of most Roman Catholics, most Jews, most voting Negroes—and most members of the Ku Klux Klan.

As unreconstructed New Dealer Leon Henderson put it last week: “The party is strong because the divergent elements are brought together by an unspoken pact of mutual security.” The Democrats are certainly not lacking in principle; each of the “divergent elements” has a principle and a direction of its own. What the Democrats lack are principles held in common by all the elements in the party. The “mutual-security pact” does not create intellectual agreement or compromise on these principles. But it does generate a strong emotional loyalty to the party. The Democrats have far more bitter internal fights than the Republicans, but they have also a keener feeling that they must stick together. Party love is more highly developed among the Democrats because they need it more.

Among Democrats, no man is more identified with the party’s emotional cohesion than Alben Barkley. He leads no ideological faction, stands for no one of the “divergent groups”; he stands for the glue that holds the party together.

Money-Back Guarantee. Barkley has spent a long lifetime becoming the best loved man in the party of love. His yen for politics stretches back to Grandma Barkley’s first stories of her distinguished cousin, Grover Cleveland’s Vice President Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson).

To Alben’s lasting political credit, he was born poor (Nov. 24, 1877), in a two-story log house in the one-crop tobacco country near Lowes, Ky. He was the eldest of eight children, and his father’s favorite. When Alben had outgrown the little Lowes school, his father loaded the family and their possessions into a single wagon and, with the cow trailing behind, moved to Clinton, Ky. so Alben could go to Marvin College. Alben worked his way through Marvin as janitor (years later a wag posted a sign on the lawn: “Barkley Swept Here”), won high grades and a medal for oratory.

From Marvin he went on to Georgia’s little Emory College, and worked summers peddling earthenware by horseback through the back country. On his first circuit he personally guaranteed his customers that the bowls and dishes would not crack with heat. On his second he used up his profits making good on the guarantee. Says he: “It wiped out my earnings, but I didn’t lose a vote in that part of the county when I ran for office.”

Roads to Congress. Barkley picked up law in the informal and highly efficacious way of the times: a few courses at the University of Virginia law school, home reading, and a term of clerking in the office of Paducah’s famous old Judge William Bishop (fictionalized as Judge Priest by Paducah’s other famous citizen, Irvin S. Cobb). Law led to politics, and in 1905 Barkley rambled through McCracken County on a one-eyed horse, stopping at every farmhouse to swap stories and get himself elected county prosecuting attorney. The next jump (in 1909) was to county judge, and the next (in 1912) was a stump campaign for good roads. It landed him in Congress.

He arrived at the onset of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, set his course with the party leadership, and became identified as a progressive. In 1926 Barkley moved over to the Senate, two years later was in such good graces that he was allowed to second the nomination of Al Smith at the convention. He stumped for Smith, stumped again in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt. In 1937 Roosevelt threw Barkley the majority leadership of the Senate by the famous “Dear Alben” letter,* and “Dear Alben”—sometimes known as “Bumbling Barkley”—amiably suffered the charges of sharp-tongued critics who said that he was nothing but a Roosevelt errand boy.

The Rebellion. But his critics didn’t know what made Alben Barkley tick. They found out on Feb. 23, 1944. Barkley had worked faithfully to get through a $10.5 billion Administration tax bill, came out with $2.3 billion, which he knew was the best that Congress could produce in an election year. Roosevelt rejected the $2.3 billion bill with a stinging veto message, penciling in the taunt that the bill was really “a tax-relief bill, providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy.”

To Barkley this was a high-handed, impetuous insult to the Democratic majority. Solemnly he rose at his front-row desk in the Senate and, in a low and sometimes choking voice, told off Franklin Roosevelt for “his effort to belittle and discredit Congress.” He concluded: “Mr. President, let me say . . . that if the Congress of the United States has any self-respect yet left, it will override the veto.” The Senate roared, cheered and stamped. The veto was overridden in both houses. At a party caucus Barkley resigned as F.D.R.’s majority leader and, minutes later, was unanimously re-elected in a resounding vote of confidence in his independence.

Franklin Roosevelt mumbled a half-apology in a “Dear Alben” telegram. But five months later, when Barkley was getting ready to nominate Roosevelt for a fourth term at the Democratic Convention, Barkley got the news that Roosevelt had passed him over as a candidate for Vice President in favor of Harry Truman. This was a personal hurt, but not an affront to the party, so Barkley pulled himself together and made the hall echo with his eulogy of the Chief.

Chances are good that Alben Barkley would be President of the U.S. today if he had not crossed Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. But without that trial by fire, he could never have fully qualified as the best-loved Democrat, as the symbol of the Democratic mutual-security pact.

He went back to his job of Senate majority leader to bear an increasing personal burden. Dorothy Brower Barkley, whom he had married in Tennessee when he was 25 years old, fell ill with heart trouble. As her condition worsened, she required day & night nurses and extensive medical attention. Barkley’s finances were exhausted, and he made ends meet by taking on a heavy schedule of out-of-town speeches. After a day’s work in the Senate he would fly out of town to deliver a lighthearted speech, pick up a fee ranging from $300 to $1,000, and fly home again during the night to visit briefly with the dying Mrs. Barkley, then report again for his daytime work in the Senate. Mrs. Barkley died in 1947.

The Omnipresent Veep. After Barkley’s loyal party service as majority leader, people began to understand him better. On television, Harry Truman saw Barkley energize the hate-filled 1948 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech, immediately agreed that Barkley should be the candidate for Vice President. During the 1948 campaign Barkley trouped through 36 states (230 speeches), spreading a subtle reminder that the voters should be grateful for past Democratic favors. His favorite story was woven around Abron McCoy, his 299-lb. Negro hired man. Allegedly. Abron told Barkley he was going to vote for Dewey. “Why?” asked Barkley. “Well, suh,” said Abron, “I voted Republican in ’40 and ’44 and I ain’t never had it so good.”

When he was elected, Barkley loved to tell about the man who raised two fine boys: “One went to sea and the other was elected Vice President, and the father never heard of either of them again.” But Barkley made himself one of the best-known Vice Presidents in history. His grandchildren tagged him “the Veep,” a national title that delighted the headline writers. And in 1949 the headlines followed hot on the Veep’s coattails as he courted and won the winsome Widow Hadley of St. Louis, and took her home to Washington and Paducah.

Jane Barkley kept a sharp eye on the Veep’s health, shorted him on his favorite hog jowl & turnip greens, and talked him into more salads, fruit and a slendering waistline. He still carries his railsplitter’s shoulders as upright as a general, still has all his own teeth. Only his eyes are a problem: he can barely see without his thick-lensed glasses. Recently he came out of a successful operation for cataract and cracked to Pittsburgh’s Mayor David Lawrence: “You know I can see through a brick wall. The girls had better start wearing heavier clothes.”

Last November the Barkleys flew off to Korea to eat Thanksgiving dinner with the G.I.s. “The politicians back home got to bellowing that this was a forgotten war,” said the Veep, “so I told the President he shouldn’t come over, but I had some free time.” Later, he moved up to the front, lived out of a mess kit, autographed a 105-mm. shell, and celebrated his 74th birthday.

A Reassuring Sight. As the Democrats met in Chicago, this week, they welcomed Barkley’s cheery grin, they welcomed his forty years of experience—but not enough of them welcomed his candidacy for President. They know that no team they could put together would match Eisenhower & Nixon in sheer popular appeal. But they also knew that they would have to face the cry that they were a party too long in power and they did not want to face that with a 74-year-old candidate.

Party strategists agreed that they must fight the election on their record of the past 20 years and on their platform. Carefully they martialed the statistics on the nation’s advances since 1932—counting up improvements in homes, health, prosperity, reclamation, and anything else that seemed appropriate.

They plan, as usual, to appeal to all groups and all viewpoints, to reconcile the irreconcilable and pat the incompatible. As Ellis Arnall has written: “The Democrats keep a candle burning in the window.” Perhaps it is no less bright because these days the candle is borrowed and burning at both ends.

When it comes to holding that candle aloft, there are few better men than Barkley. Old Alben is pretty sure to take the stump for a younger champion, telling fables of Paducah, reminding the party of the horrors of being out of power, and spreading love, love, love.

*The letter, written to Barkley as acting majority leader immediately after the death of Majority Leader Joe Robinson, was Roosevelt’s last-gasp effort to revive his Supreme Court packing bill in Congress. By addressing “Dear Alben,” Roosevelt indicated his preference for Barkley over a powerful rival for the leadership, Mississippi’s Pat Harrison. Barkley squeaked into the job by a vote of 38-37.

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