According to the warship naming conventions of the United States Navy, aircraft carriers are supposed to be named after admirals or major politicians, the latter usually but not always being presidents. Our country is currently in the midst of a decades-long process of replacing our venerable Nimitz-class aircraft carriers with new ships in a class which has been named after President Gerald Ford. The USS Gerald Ford is scheduled to be commissioned later this year, with new ships being commissioned every four or five years until all ten Nimitz-class ships have been replaced.
While I personally question the wisdom of maintaining such a vast and expensive fleet of aircraft carriers all around the world, the issue I want to raise this week is rather more down-to-earth. As we build new aircraft carriers, we are going to have to give them names. I'd like to make a case for naming one of the new aircraft carriers after one of America's greatest yet most unappreciated statesman: Congressman Sam Rayburn, who was America's longest serving Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Rayburn has long been a political hero of mine and I think his example is one we desperately need in this day and age. He was a Texas Democrat of Scots-Irish descent, who spent most of his life representing the farmer folk of Fannin County in the northeast part of the Lone Star State. He served three terms in the Texas State Legislature while he was still in his twenties, being chosen as Speaker during his final term. As a representative, he fought against the railroads and banks, making a name for himself as both a champion of the people and a man of unrivaled integrity. During this time, he also worked his way through the University of Texas School of Law. Even at this young age, he told friends that his greatest ambition in life was to be elected to Congress and become Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In 1913, he was elected to Congress, where he would remain for nearly half a century, until his death from cancer in 1961. His time in Congress began during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and ended during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. I'm personally a supporter of term limits for the House of Representatives, but if I had to name the best argument against them, I'd probably simply say, "Sam Rayburn."
He was a man of sterling integrity. In Austin, he refused to take the free railroad passes that were given out to all members of the state legislature as a matter of course. When he was offered a check for his portion of his law firm's regular retainer from the Santa Fe Railroad - which was perfectly legal and routine - he simply refused to accept it, explaining that he could not tolerate even the hint of impropriety. Gifts given to Rayburn by wealthy people seeking legislative favors were returned without comment. The mere mention of lobbyists was said to make Rayburn furious. In an age when politicians are bought and sold by the special interests, Rayburn's example of honorable integrity is something that needs to be remembered.
Yet Rayburn was not some starry-eyed populist. He was, above all else, a pragmatist and a realist who believed in getting things done. He believed that everyone, from the ordinary farmers of his beloved Fannin County to the richest Wall Street bankers, deserved a seat at the table and that common ground could always be carved out. As a Texan, he was an active and energetic support of the oil and gas industry, not because he accepted their bribes (he didn't), but because it brought prosperity to the Lone Star State and gave jobs to his constituents.
He was a master of the legislative process. He made relatively few speeches in his long congressional career, yet exerted an enormous influence on the bills that moved through the House of Representatives. Contrary to what is often said, issues that came before Congress were no less complicated and complex during Rayburn's time than they are today. Whether he was dealing with utility regulation, securities fraud, tariffs on agricultural produce, or military procurement, Rayburn strove to get to the bottom of the question and find the best solutions to the various problems with which he was confronted. He would never have claimed to be a genius, yet he possessed an attention to detail and an amazing work ethic that allowed him master even the most complex pieces of legislation.
In 1931, Rayburn became Chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. In this role, he became a chief ally of President Franklin Roosevelt as the complicated and controversial legislation of the New Deal worked its way through Congress. He played a key role in the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, bringing power to thousands of family farms and small communities which had been ignored by the utility companies up to that point.
After more than a quarter of a century in Congress, Rayburn achieved his life's ambition at the age of 58 in 1940. In an act which would be unthinkable today, the members of the House, Republican and Democrat alike, voted unanimously to raise him to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Aside from two momentary lapses when the Republicans briefly regained control of the House (1947-49 and 1953-55) Rayburn would remain as Speaker until his death, twenty-one years later, in 1961. In total, Rayburn was Speaker for seventeen years, two months, and two days, longer than any other Speaker. In contrast to the bitter partisanship of today, Rayburn saw himself as the leader of the House rather than as the Democratic Party leader. He remained close friends with Congressman Joseph Martin, the Republican party leader. The ferocious ideological battles that rage in Congress in own time would have struck Rayburn as inexcusable wastes of time and a disservice to the American people. He never expected ironclad loyalty from anyone, reminding younger members of the House that their first duty was to their constituents and that they needed to vote for the interests of their districts.
He was a quiet and unassuming leader, preferring to work behind the scenes rather than hog the spotlight. One of his most effective tools of his leadership was the so-called "Board of Education", a group of Congressmen who would meet with Rayburn in a secluded Capitol room to discuss political events and simply enjoy one another's company over whiskey and cards. It was in such an atmosphere that Rayburn did his work best.
Rayburn led the House as America waged a global struggle against fascism in the Second World War. He worked closely with President Roosevelt to speedily pass military appropriations and other critical legislation. He kept the fractious Republican and Democratic representatives united when the pressures and controversies of the war might have torn them apart. He was among the very few men outside of the military who were privy to the secret of the Manhattan Project, whose funding he helped arrange and whose secrecy he helped maintain. Of all the major figures in Washington, few did as much to win the Second World War as did Rayburn,
As the war against fascism ended and the long Cold War against global communism began, Rayburn again played a critical behind-the-scenes role. He built a close working relationship with President Truman, whom he had befriended during the latter's tenure in the Senate. He later worked equally well with Dwight Eisenhower, proving that honorable men of good will could set aside party differences for the good of the nation. Rayburn played a role in garnering congressional support for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, securing military appropriations to fight the Korean War, and generally being a pillar of the anti-communist establishment. He never let his opposition to communism blind him to reality, however, and was a determined foe of McCarthyism.
Rayburn represented a conservative, rural, overwhelmingly white district, so when the fight for racial equality became the most important domestic issue in the mid-1950s, he did not join the civil rights bandwagon right away. Yet Rayburn was one of the few Congressmen from the former Confederacy who refused to sign the pro-segregation Southern Manifesto of 1956 and he later helped guide the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the House (its passage in the Senate was masterminded by Rayburn's protege, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson). A man more comfortable with the prewar than the postwar world, he never quite fit in with the civil rights camp, but he recognized that the country was changing and that he needed to change with it. Rayburn could never have been a 1960s radical, but his evolving views on race were shaped by his fundamental beliefs in fairness and equality.
Speaker Sam Rayburn was a statesman of the old school. He eschewed political dogma of any kind, believing that an office-holder's only duty was to act on behalf of the people in general and their constituents in particular. His example is one that is sorely needed in the times in which we live. There would be no better way to accord the man the respect he deserves, and perhaps send a message to the country about the need for us to remember his example, than to christen one of our new aircraft carriers the USS Sam Rayburn.