Tuesday's In Texas: Sam Rayburn

The name Sam Rayburn of Texas is well known to this House. It can be found identifying portraits and busts just outside this chamber. It is the namesake of meeting rooms and offices throughout the Capitol complex. I, along with many of you, work in the Rayburn office building. I hold conferences in the Rayburn meeting room just across the hall. The name of Sam Rayburn is synonymous with statesmanship and devotion to public service at its finest. His importance to the tradition and legacy of this place can be summed up in the fact that at one time this chamber was referred to as “Sam’s House.”

Rayburn earned the admiration of even his rivals. Joe Martin, after losing the election for speaker to Sam Rayburn, said of his colleague “he is a man of great ability, of rare political acumen, and skillful in debate.” He gained that reputation during a tenure in Congress that lasted almost 49 years, and a record long Speakership of 17 years. His leadership was vital, and well timed. He served this country during the critical years between the beginning of World War II and the Kennedy administration. It was the strike of his gavel that entered America into the war, and it was he that administered the oath of office to Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

As a leader, he always preferred persuasion and good-humor to coercion. Following this philosophy, he used the influence of the speakership only sparingly and with subtlety and cunning. His authority, therefore, came from the general respect of his peers for the character of the man, not the power or prestige of his title. He was known for his unwavering integrity, his loyalty to friends and colleagues in both parties, his fairness, and his disdain for pretention. Rayburn once made the following remark, explaining his philosophy on leadership: "You cannot lead people by trying to drive them. Persuasion and reason are the only ways to lead them. In that way the Speaker has influence and power in the House.”

Sam Rayburn would become one of the most powerful individuals in the United States, but all this was preceded by humble beginnings. Rayburn grew up working on his father’s cotton farm in North Texas. Even as a boy, he dreamed of becoming the Speaker of the House. He left the farm to seek out that dream, working his way through East Texas Normal College, which would later become Texas A&M University. He then taught school, and was eventually elected to serve in the Texas House of Representatives. While there he pursued a degree in law. In 1912 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and remained there for almost half a century. He was a life-long bachelor, some say that this House was his love, his passion. Appropriately, then, perhaps, Sam Rayburn died in office. Despite knowing that his cancer was terminal, and several moments of unconsciousness at the Speaker’s chair, he insisted on seeing the Kennedy New Frontier program through.

Sam Rayburn served his country well, so well as to become a fixture of this institution, and remains so today.

And that’s just the way it is.


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