“Mr. Sam” Rayburn Sworn in as Speaker, April 1913

On April 7, 1913, Sam Rayburn officially began his congressional career that would not end until more than 48 years later. Following the summary immediately below, there is a longer post on Mr. Sam. Here is the Texas State Historical Association summary of the event and Sam Rayburn’s life:

“On this day in 1913, Sam Rayburn took the oath of office as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He became majority leader in 1937 and was elected speaker of the House in 1940, a post he held in Democratically controlled legislatures until his death in 1961. Rayburn helped negotiate the Roosevelt-Garner ticket in 1932 and loyally supported the New Deal. As chairman of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee in the 1930s he oversaw legislation that established the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. During World War II he helped ensure the legislative base and financial support for the war effort, and in the 1950s he worked closely with Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. Rayburn served in the House for more than forty-eight years.”

Born in Tennessee in 1882, Sam Rayburn came to Texas with his family at the age of five, and with grit and hard work made his way from a small cotton farm to the campus of what is now Texas A&M–Commerce.  From there, after teaching school, he was elected to the Texas House in 1906, and by the beginning of his third and last term, in 1910, he was chosen by his peers as speaker, at the age of 28.  He managed to attend the UT School of Law between legislative sessions, became a member of the bar, and then won election to congress in 1912, heading off to Washington amid the hopes that the new president, Woodrow Wilson, would take the country in a new direction.

From 1912 until his retirement from the House in 1961, Mr. Sam never had a Republican opponent, and he might as well have had no opponents at all. The reason: Sam Rayburn was headed for greatness, not the kind of greatness that presidents often attain, with their world-changing decisions, but greatness as both a person and political leader. Who in American history has managed to join fairness, honesty, and integrity to the hard business of politics as well as Sam Rayburn, to such good effect? Washington, Lincoln–and then who else?  And the remarkable fact about Rayburn is that he earned his reputation, like the two presidents above, in the midst of grave national challenges: depression, world war, the cold war, and the first wave of desegregation.

Rayburn and his protege, Lyndon Johnson, both refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” in 1956 that called for total opposition to the integration of public places. Johnson’s desire to be president (and likely his beliefs) provided sufficient motivation. Mr. Sam, near the end of his career, a hard-scrabble boy with a Deep South heritage, simply did what he always did–what was right. He went on all of one political “junket” during his whole career, a trip to Africa, and then paid for it out of his own pocket. When he died, he had about $15,000 to his name, the result of his determination since his Texas House days never to take any money when there was the slightest appearance of a conflict of interest, no matter that he often could have done so legally.

It is this level of integrity that sets Mr. Sam off from just about every political leader one can name.  Lyndon Johnson certainly did not have it. Worse, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, Johnson allegedly betrayed his mentor Rayburn when FDR was looking for someone to take over the allocation of New Deal funding in Texas, in the wake of FDR’s rift with John Nance Garner. Caro writes that Johnson schemed to form the impression in FDR’s mind that Rayburn was not in fact a loyal supporter of the New Deal–despite the constant and effective efforts by Mr. Sam to pass New Deal legislation. Johnson became FDR’s man in Texas. Yet Sam Rayburn stood by Johnson later on, when he sought the presidency in 1960. It must have been that Mr. Sam still believed Lyndon was the man who could do the most for the nation, the one criterion that Rayburn put above others.

Sadly, looking back on Rayburn’s life and career brings to the mind how much has been lost more than it links the values of the great man to any modern inheritor. Turn this way or that way, search anywhere you like; how many Sam Rayburns do you see?