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MR. SPEAKER! by James Grant


The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster

by James Grant

Pub Date: May 10th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4493-7
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Biographer and financial expert Grant (Mr. Market Miscalculates: The Bubble Years and Beyond, 2008, etc.) takes the measure of “Czar” Reed, the Gilded Age giant of the Congress.

The great John Singer Sargent painted him; the peerless Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpted him. Both felt obliged to apologize for not quite capturing the essence of Thomas Brackett Reed (1839–1902), the powerful House Speaker. Of the Sargent portrait, the inveterately sardonic Reed remarked: “I hope my enemies are satisfied.” Where artistic geniuses before him have faltered, it seems churlish to censure Grant for failing to give us the man in full, particularly as he writes with great verve about the political issues that dominated Reed’s era. The author effectively demystifies economic arcana—protective tariff, gold standard, bimetallism, etc.—to breezily instruct readers in the intra-Congress, parliamentary maneuvering and mastery of the rules for which the Speaker is best remembered, even to account for Reed’s unlikely late-life apostasy on issues like women’s suffrage and imperialism. Solving the private Reed, though, poses a difficult problem for Grant—indeed, for any biographer looking to pierce the legendary imperiousness that both attracted and repelled colleagues and constituents. Reed’s massive frame, opaque gaze, formidable intellect and lacerating wit kept contemporaries at arm’s length. He was respected, even feared, but never loved. Notwithstanding his fiercely partisan party service, fellow Republicans preferred the likes of the charismatic and thoroughly dishonest James G. Blaine or the amiable, relentlessly ordinary William McKinley for the presidency. Incorruptible in an era notorious for corruption, Reed, nevertheless, was no earnest reformer in the mode of, say, Democrat Grover Cleveland. He was a fatalist about the business cycle and about mankind, and had “no interest in instructing the impure.” He loathed humbug and grandiloquence, severe handicaps for a politician. Asked in 1896 about his chances for the presidential nomination, Reed responded, “They could do worse—and probably will.”

Flawed, yes, but likely to become the standard biography, at least for now.