Mainstream pundits have courageously taken arms against the recent immoderate outbreak of progressive optimism. Even though authentic progressive Nancy Pelosi is now speaker of the House, we are assured that her power will be nominal, that she must cringingly push only the most blandly inoffensive "centrist" legislation, lest she be discredited as a "San Francisco Liberal" and neutralized by the House's unruly bands of Blue Dog Democrats, New Democrats and K Street Democrats. We are told it is naive to expect courageous reform from a speaker who is beholden to a Big Tent Coalition that will enthusiastically collapse over the most menial disagreements.
Before progressives resign themselves to humbly accepting cautious mediocrity from Speaker Pelosi, we should remember the example set by Sam Rayburn, the greatest Democratic speaker of the House.
Born in a rotting log cabin in 1882, Rayburn was the eighth child of an illiterate Confederate cavalryman and his austere evangelical wife. Raised in an impoverished household that numbered over a dozen members, Sam was hitched up and worked hard from the moment he was old enough to understand orders. On his destitute family farm, where the laziness of a single member caused the others to go hungry, the virtues of honesty, hard work, and compassion were taught by necessity, by Pavlovian penalties of suffering and shame. Rayburn, who revered the ascetic dignity of his dirt-poor parents, would grow up to consider Social Darwinism and the justice of self-regulating capitalism as ideologies worthy of contempt.
Rayburn's crawl to power was necessarily slow, starting with a successful door-to-door campaign for the Texas legislature. After 20 bitterly anonymous years in Congress, Rayburn reached national power with FDR's 1932 electoral landslide. Crowned chairman of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Rayburn was seen as a weak link in Roosevelt's new ruling coalition, an uncultured and inconceivably poor Southerner from a politically irrelevant rural district who was thus acutely vulnerable to the smear campaigns and financial firepower of the business elite. Rayburn was made an offer: he could cooperate with Wall Street's obstruction of the New Deal and reap magnificent rewards ... or be ruthlessly destroyed.
Instead, Rayburn launched the most daring legislative offensive of the 1930s, passing a series of bills that for the first time regulated the securities and stock market, created the SEC, dismantled America's corrupt and all-powerful utility industry and forced it to provide electricity to rural Americans who were seen as a "bad investment." An anathema to business interests, Rayburn suffered constant character assassination in both the local and national press and was forced to laboriously dispatch throngs of Wall Street-backed primary challengers in his home district like Bruce Lee obliterating evil henchmen one after the other.
Rayburn's courageous campaign against America's plutocrats was rewarded with the lifelong loyalty of his profoundly affected constituents and the admiration of his fellow congressmen. In 1940, he was so respected that the Republicans refused to contest his election as speaker of the House. "Mr. Sam," as he was known, deserved to be elected unanimously.
The Democratic Caucus that Rayburn presided over for the next 21 years was the misbegotten child of the Civil War. Hostile memories of Reconstruction had attached the Ku Klux Konservatives of the Jim Crow South to the New Deal Democrats. Mid-century pundits surely opined that poor Sam Rayburn would be powerless to coerce his bitterly divided party to pass ambitious legislation.
In reality, through relentless perseverance and negotiation, Sam Rayburn compelled the virulent isolationists in his own party to pass the Lend-Lease Bill that financed Europe's resistance of Nazism and, when the war was over, miraculously convinced the same weary isolationists to pay to rebuild Europe. In 1957, Rayburn and his protege, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, legitimized the Civil Rights Movement by muscling through the first bill on behalf of black Americans since Reconstruction over the apocalyptic opposition of half of their own party.
Shortly before his death in 1961, Rayburn broke the power of the conservative-dominated House Rules Committee so that the policies that eventually became LBJ's Great Society could be passed. Rayburn's incorruptibility and integrity were proven after his death when it was found that, after over 50 years as a successful politician, he left little more in his will than his part of the family farm, the contents of a small chintzily-furnished bachelor's apartment and $15,000 in savings.
Sam Rayburn's career is the precedent that belies every columnist who says that Nancy Pelosi and other leaders of the Democratic Party are prevented from passing progressive legislation by the ideological divisions within their party. If Sam Rayburn had the talent and bravery to pass civil rights legislation and progressive economic policies in an era when the Democratic Party included such humanists as Strom Thurmond and Theodore Bilbo, then surely Nancy Pelosi can at least try to promote a legislative agenda that aims to correct the wretched injustices and orgiastic corruption of our political system.
Matthew Randazzo V is a freelance writer.
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