Seventy years after his death, William E. Borah has become a shadowy historic figure in his adopted state of Idaho. During the nearly 33 years he spent in the United States Senate, however, Borah – called the Lion of Idaho – was a hugely influential figure in American politics, even though some of his contemporaries lamented his unwillingness, at times, to assume an even larger role.
Borah was a creature of the Senate and his times and the Senate was a different place in the first decades of the 20th Century than it has become today. Many senators tended to see themselves more as national representatives rather than home state advocates and the Senate was, in many respects, the ultimate political platform; a place to make a national reputation and a long career. Borah did both.
Some interesting details of Borah’s long career:
Borah never got along particularly well with President Calvin Coolidge, even though both were Republicans. One story has Borah being asked to the White House in 1924 where Coolidge was hoping to entice the Idahoan’s support in that year’s presidential election. Coolidge asked whether Borah would consider a place on the national ticket, to which the Senator reportedly replied, “Which place, Mr. President?” Borah ultimately rejected overtures to become vice president and refused to make the nominating speech at the GOP convention for Silent Cal.
Borah exercised great influence over a long period of time on appointments to the Supreme Court. In 1932, he played a pivotal role in convincing Herbert Hoover to nominate Benjamin Cardozo to the Court. Cardozo is now widely considered one of the greatest justices.
In 1937, Borah played a huge, behind the scenes role in derailing Franklin Roosevelt’s scheme to “pack” the Supreme Court by adding as many as six new justices. At a critical moment, Borah prevailed upon elderly Justice Willis Van Devanter, one of the Court’s staunch conservatives and a neighbor of Borah’s, to tender his resignation. The move, quietly engineered in personal conversation, helped undermine FDR’s plans by presenting the president with chance to appoint a liberal to the court.
At a time when the charge of being “soft on communism” was every bit as damaging as it was in more recent times, Borah was an early and long-time advocate for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution took place in 1917 and the United States did not extend formal diplomatic recognition until 1933. Borah called for recognition in the early 1920’s.
Borah’s reputation for independence and bipartisanship was greatly respected. In 1924, Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat, was indicted on corruption charges. Many in the Senate saw the indictment as nothing more than a trumped up charge aimed at intimidating Wheeler who was conducting a high profile investigation of the Justice Department and corrupt Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Borah lead a bipartisan Senate investigation of the charges against Wheeler and concluded he was not guilty of anything except looking into Daugherty’s shady dealings. With little dissent, the Senate adopted the carefully crafted report. Wheeler was later also found not guilty by a Montana jury and Borah and Wheeler cemented a lifetime friendship. When it appeared that Borah might face a tough re-election in Idaho in 1936, and that the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt would help Borah’s challenger, Wheeler publicly repudiated FDR’s meddling in Borah’s race and pledged to campaign for his Republican friend. Talk about bipartisanship.
In 1932, a well-known Washington reporter, Ray Tucker, published what became a very popular political book with the unforgettable title – Sons of the Wild Jackass. The title was a reference to a remark that New Hampshire Republican Senator George Moses had made when referring to the independent, progressive element in American politics. It was not meant as a compliment. Tucker’s book contained chapter length profiles of 15 of the “jackasses,” including Borah.
Tucker’s opening sentence regarding Borah is perhaps the best single description of the great Idaho senator. “There are four distinct political factions in the United States,” Tucker wrote, “Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and William Edgar Borah of Idaho.”
William E. Borah served longer in Washington, D.C. than any other Idahoan. He chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee for eight years, a role that made him an international figure. He dominated state politics, not by heading a political machine, but by the power of his personality and his carefully cultivated reputation for integrity and independence.