The Nation: Uncle Joe Cannon: Iron Duke of Congress

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"I am goddamned tired of listening to all this babble for reform. America is a hell of a success."

—Joseph G. Cannon

NOTHING annoyed "Uncle Joe" Cannon more than the idea of change, and during the eight years he ruled Congress as Speaker of the House, most calls for reform were icily snubbed. From 1903 to 1911, Congress under Cannon was at the height of its power, intimidating—and thwarting—even so aggressive a President as Theodore Roosevelt. Snorted Cannon at one piece of forest legislation: "Not one cent for scenery." Wrote a contemporary scholar: "There is some room for saying Cannon is even more powerful than the President of the United States.

Today, the Speaker is the absolute arbiter of our national legislation."

Cannon's influence was built on three great weapons, all inherited from Speakers of the past. First, he controlled all committee assignments. Second, only Cannon could recognize members on the floor. Finally, Cannon was chairman of the Rules Committee, which oversaw the flow of legislation. Both careers and legislation depended on his whim. He was called the "Iron Duke of American politics."

Tough, smart and profane, he ranks with Henry Clay, Thomas Reed and Sam Rayburn among the most powerful Speakers ever. A bred-in-the-bone Republican from Illinois, he was first elected to the House in 1872—a century ago—and served a total of 46 years.

Above all, he was a party loyalist. It was that quality, coupled with his own complete honesty and steely determination, that brought him through the ranks, first to the chairmanship of the key House Appropriations Committee, then to the Speakership. Arbitrary and cantankerous, piercing gray eyes flickering from a ruddy, chin-whiskered face, he might expectably have been hated by his colleagues. He was not. At the end of his first term as Speaker, Republicans and Democrats alike joined to give him a loving cup as a "mute token of our affection."

When the attacks on him began, they were directed more at his hostility to progress than at the man himself. In 1909, 1910 and 1911, in a series of bitter confrontations, his three great powers were stripped away and Cannon himself was forced to step down. It was the beginning of the long erosion of congressional power. Some current suggestions for reform have an unmistakable whiff of Cannonism to them, notably Carl Albert's plan to exact "loyalty oaths" from new Democratic members of the Rules Committee. Cannon himself would have been horrified by such halfway measures. When he retired from politics in 1923 (and became TIME'S first cover subject), TIME summed him up as "the supreme dictator of the Old Guard. Never did a man employ the office of Speaker with less regard for its theoretical impartiality."

In the 93rd Congress, a touch of Cannon's toughness—if not his cantankerous complacency—might be an asset.