Much is being made today – as it should be – of the honors being afforded Robert C. Byrd, the longest serving member ever in the United States Senate. Senators will stop everything – Supreme Court confirmations, Wall Street regulatory reform, maybe even partisan bickering – to honor Byrd whose mortal remains will hold the Senate floor for a final time. It is a great honor and a fitting one.
In another July – 73 years ago – another powerful, beloved Senate leader, a Senator with many of the southern and political instincts that Byrd came to symbolize, received much the same honor Byrd receives today. Joseph Taylor Robinson, when he died of a heart attack during a blistering hot spell in Washington, D.C. on July 14, 1937, was the longest serving majority leader in history. His death shocked the nation’s political establishment and, like Bobby Byrd, it caused the institution to stop and reflect on how special and significant one person can be, even in the rarefied air of the United States Senate.
Robinson, a former Arkansas governor and Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1928, was widely admired in the Senate for his work ethic, his fairness and his ability to forge lasting personal relationships.
[Technically, Byrd is lying in repose today, while Robinson’s 1937 ceremony was called a memorial.]
Robinson’s biographer, Cecil Edward Weller, Jr., says he was the most important Arkansas politician in the first half of the 20th Century, and one of the most influential in the south. But even more than that, Robinson, like Byrd, was a creature of the Senate. Ironically, Robinson’s lifetime ambition was a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and that seemed within his reach in 1937.
It was the worst kept secret in the Capitol that Franklin Roosevelt had promised the first open seat on the Court to Robinson, mostly out of respect for his party loyalty. Robinson had taken on the thankless job of running as the southern balance on the Democratic ticket in 1928 with New York Governor Al Smith. Smith was a Catholic, northeastern, urban, “wet,” while Robinson was a rural, Protestant, southern “dry.” The Smith-Robinson ticket got trounced.
When a Supreme Court opening materialized in the summer of 1937, FDR hesitated in naming Robinson because he was completely embroiled in his controversial plan to enlarge the Court; or “pack” it in the popular phrase of the day. Robinson had been FDR’s loyal lieutenant in advancing the Court plan – and the rest of the New Deal for that matter – even though he was personally skeptical that it was the right policy.
Still, when conservative Justice Willis Van Devanter retired, it looked like Robinson was destined to get his wish. His Senate friends took to calling him “Mr. Justice,” but still FDR withheld the formal offer of a Court appointment. The president wanted his Court plan to pass and knew he needed his majority leader on the job to get it done. As events turned, neither FDR’s bill passed nor did Robinson get to the Court. When Joe T. died on July 14, the Court plan died with him, as did his hope to end his long career on the nation’s high court.
Its all speculation, but had Robinson lived he might well have forced Roosevelt to compromise and accept two or three additional Supreme Court justices rather than the six FDR wanted. Without Robinson pushing and prodding the Senate, the president got nothing. By the same token, had FDR acted quickly to appoint Robinson to the Court, it might well have been the gesture the Senate was looking for – putting a popular Senate leader on the controversial Court – to move the president’s legislation. Proof that timing is often everything in politics.
FDR attended Robinson’s memorial ceremony in the Senate chamber and most members of the Senate and many House members boarded a special train to Little Rock for services prior to Robinson’s burial in Arkansas nearly three-quarters of a century ago.