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How Have Strong House Speakers Influenced Presidential Policy?


There was Nancy Pelosi suggesting that President Trump delay his State of the Union address. There was President Trump taking away her military transport to Afghanistan. This standoff between the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been spawning some comparisons with other strong speakers, among them Sam Rayburn of Texas, whose death was noted in this newsreel from 1961.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Congress has lost a longtime resident - Sam Rayburn. Mr. Sam served in Congress and as speaker longer than any other man.

GREENE: Now, since then, others have served longer in the House than Mr. Sam. But Sam Rayburn retains the record for the longest-serving speaker and one of the most powerful. The role of the speaker is our topic this week. And we're going to put your questions to commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us.

Hi, Cokie.


GREENE: All right. It's great to have you back, talking about how government and politics work. Let's get to our first listener. This is a topic that a lot of people were interested in.

VINCENT HARRIS: Hi. This is Vincent Harris from Greenville, S.C. And my question is, from a historical perspective, how effective have strong speakers been at influencing presidential policy?

ROBERTS: Well, what we mainly see in terms of presidential policy is either a speaker who helps enact it or who thwarts it. So in the Rayburn example, he helped presidents from Roosevelt to Kennedy with their agendas, including momentous actions such as shepherding the extension of the military draft through the House by one vote...


ROBERTS: ...Right before Pearl Harbor all the way up to helping push through changes in the Rules Committee, which allowed civil rights bills to pass in the 1960s.

GREENE: How do you pull that off? How do you get Congress...

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...To basically do what you want?

ROBERTS: Well, he, himself - Rayburn said it was through persuasion and reason. But Rayburn cultivated friendships among both parties, was admired greatly for his integrity and his humor. I actually knew him quite well, David. He was a grandfather figure in our house. And he always said, tell the truth in the first place, then you don't have to remember what you said.

GREENE: (Laughter) I love that.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

GREENE: Those are words to live by. All right. Well, I think this next question is going to take us even further back in history.

MARSHALL ANDERSEN: Hi, Cokie. This is Marshall Andersen in Oregon. During Buchanan's presidency, I understand there was Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House. How does the political climate then compare to the political climate today?

GREENE: Taking us back to the days of Buchanan, OK.

ROBERTS: Well, yes, right before the Civil War - and happily, these times are not as bad as those when the issue of slavery, of course, tore the country apart. It was so divided it took 44 ballots and almost two months to elect a speaker. And people were ready to fight at any moment. A congressional wife, Abigail Brooks Adams, wrote to her son Henry that, quote, "the other side all go armed." But she admitted that she should like to punch a head or two.



ROBERTS: So it's not quite that bad now. That horrible Congress ended in a lame duck session, where the southern states began seceding. It's an object lesson of what can happen when you can't come together.

GREENE: All right. Here's one more question about historical precedents.

BEVERLY MELO: Hi, Cokie. This is Beverly Melo from Black Point, Conn. When in the past has there been so much rancor and ill will between the White House and the Congress? And how was that result?

ROBERTS: Well, civil war resolved it, unfortunately, in the mid-19th century. But mid-20th century, you had the example of Harry Truman running against the do-nothing Republican Congress, which was not really fair, David. That Congress had done a lot. It enacted the Marshall Plan, created the CIA, the National Security Council. Truman's campaign worked. He brought in a Democratic Congress in his surprise victory in 1948. And that resolved the conflict. It really does usually take an election to sort things out.

GREENE: All right, Cokie. Thanks as always - interesting stuff.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, David.

GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts - and you can ask her your questions about how politics and government work. Just send us a tweet. Just use the #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.