As this year’s vice presidential candidates gather at Kentucky’s Centre College for their only debate of the campaign, we look at Kentucky’s three vice presidents, the last of which was Alben W. Barkley, long-time Kentucky senator, and one of his day’s most powerful Democratic leaders.
The hardest fought political battle of the twentieth century was the presidential election of 1948. Harry Truman had become an accidental president on the death of Franklin Roosevelt three and a half years earlier, and many thought he wasn’t a big enough man to be president. The polls showed him running a distant second to his Republican opponent, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.
Alben Barkley is Kentucky last vice president. (Photo from senate.gov)
Truman’s response was to leave Washington behind, climb aboard Roosevelt’s private railway car, the Ferdinand Magellan, and make the most famous whistle stop campaign tour in history. As the train left Union Station, Truman’s newly nominated vice presidential candidate, Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley, saw him off. Then, as David McCullough reports in his brilliant bestselling biography, “Truman,” the two made history:
“With everything ready, Truman and Barkley posed together on the rear platform for a few last pictures.
“‘Mow ‘em down, Harry!’ Barkley exhorted.
“‘I’m going to fight hard. I’m going to give ‘em hell,’ said Truman . . .”
The phrase stuck, and, according to McCullough, became the rallying cry of the campaign:
“’Give ‘em hell, Harry!’ someone would shout from the crowd – news accounts of his promise to Barkley to ‘give ‘em hell’ having swept the country by now. The cry went up at one stop after another, often more than once – ‘give ‘em hell, Harry!’ – which always brought more whoops, laughter, and yells of approval, but especially when he tore into the 80th Congress.”
Despite the premature headline in the deeply conservative Chicago Tribune, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” history records that Truman and Barkley won the victory. Kentucky’s last vice president (so far) was full of lasts. He was the last vice president to be born in a log cabin, and the last to be born in the twentieth century. He was the last to be chosen primarily by his party’s National Convention rather than directly by the president. He was the oldest vice president at the time he took office, and the last to serve in Congress after serving as vice president. Although he was the last vice president not to have an office in or near the White House, he was the first to take part in the substantive decision-making of an administration.
Barkley’s selection as vice president was not pre-ordained. The conventional wisdom is that his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that summer propelled him to the nomination. In his Truman biography, McCullough describes the speech:
“From the podium at Philadelphia that night, in a rousing keynote address, Alben Barkley brought the convention to life for the first time. The band played ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ Delegates cheered and stomped. It was a speech made for the occasion, as the old warhorse politician, an orator of the old school and a sentimental, favorite Democrat who had been born in a log cabin, evoked the past glories of the New Deal and heaped unmerciful scorn on the opposition. And it was a speech, not incidentally, made for television. Truman, watching at the White House, was nearly as pleased as the crowd at Convention Hall.”
McCullough says that Truman and Barkley sealed the deal the next morning:
“[B]y phone the next morning Truman asked Barkley why he had never told him he wanted to be vice president.
“’I never knew you wanted the nomination,’ Truman said.
“’Mr. President, you do not know it yet,’ Barkley answered.
Barkley on a trip to Kentucky greeting people in the streets of Lexington, 1930. Frank C. Dunn Collection, Kentucky Historical Society Collections. (Photo from lrc.ky.gov)
“Well, if I had known you wanted it, I certainly would have been agreeable,” Truman said, which though hardly a ringing confirmation was sufficient for both to consider the decision settled, and almost immediately afterward in Philadelphia, [Truman aide] McGrath told reporters that if the convention saw fit to nominate Senator Barkley for vice president, the president would be most “happy.”
Barkley, who had been available as a vice-presidential choice at every convention since 1928, told friends that if the nomination were to be his, he wanted it quickly. ‘I don’t want it passed around so long it is like a cold biscuit.’”
Barkley got his nomination, perhaps more from the convention than from Truman, hot out of the oven, and never slowed down. As Truman crossed the nation by train, Barkley engaged in his own “prop-stop” tour, crisscrossing the country by air. Barkley’s election as vice president heralded the last great resurgence of influence of Kentucky as a state since the 19th Century. Truman appointed Barkley’s fellow Kentuckian, Fred Vinson, secretary of the treasury, then chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he died in office.
Kentucky Sen. Earl Clements, one of Kentucky’s greatest political operators, was Lyndon Johnson’s assistant Majority Leader in the Senate in the mid-1950s, and if he hadn’t been defeated in his own bid for re-election in 1956 – an election many think his support for LBJ’s programs cost him – he might well have assumed the post of Majority Leader himself upon LBJ’s own election to the Vice Presidency in 1960. Kentucky did not have a national leader of the status of Barkley, Vinson and Clements, until the emergence of Mitch McConnell as majority leader of another party today.
Because of his vast experience in the Senate, Barkley was invited by President Truman to sit in on all cabinet level meetings, the first vice president to do so. He also became the first vice president to sit on the National Security Council.
Barkley was a network star in his day, literally. Barkley’s grandson, Stephen M. Truitt, found it difficult to say Barkley’s formal title, “Mr. Vice President,” and suggested that Barkley simply say “the Veep.” When Barkley told reporters this story, they dubbed him “the Veep,” the first vice president to use that nickname.
After Barkley (who had, in the late ‘40s, been voted the most popular Democrat in America) left office, he hosted an NBC television talk show, Meet the Veep, the only former vice president to have his own show. But Barkley found retirement boring, and after he was unable to get his own presidential campaign off the ground in 1952, he ran for and was elected senator from Kentucky again in 1954, easily defeating Kentucky’s moderate Republican Senator, John Sherman Cooper.
Barkley had been a tireless campaigner all his life, and he didn’t slow down in his old age. In 1956, he gave a speech at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in which he commented on the fact that now, as Kentucky’s junior senator, he, who had once been majority leader, was now merely a back bencher. “I’m glad to sit on the back row, for I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty,” Barkley thundered to the cheering students, then, suffering a heart attack, dropped dead.
The speech was being broadcast live by radio, and is today preserved on Youtube, making Barkley, a man whose life was full of firsts, lasts, and onlies, the only former vice president whose death is recorded on the internet.
Alben Barkley, from my own wing of my own political party, is one of my political heroes, and I am proud that he was the last vice president from Kentucky. Last week we spent some time with Kentucky’s first vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, and we will complete our series by looking at the life and tumultuous times of John Cabell Breckenridge, who served as U.S. vice president under James Buchanan, was defeated by Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860, and went on to become Secretary of War in the Confederacy.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.