Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Luck in politics? Ask Nick Longworth (R-Ohio), Speaker of the House,1925-1931.

Page from 1887 Longworth scrapbook, Manuscript Room, Library of Congress.
Click here for
    --  Alice and Nick's engagement photos
    -- More photos from Alice Longworth's scrapbook

"I'd rather be lucky than good."  That's what NY Yankee pitching ace "Lefty" (Vernon Louis) Gomez famously said about baseball back in the 1930s, but it goes just as well with politics.  And when a politician is both lucky and good, it takes real skill to see it and recognize which is which.

Longworth and soon-to-be-future bride Alice Rosevelt in 1905.
Take Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the US House from 1925 to 1931.  People today in Washington, D.C. remember Longworth mostly because his name is attached to one of its most familiar buildings, the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill.  Beyond that, he's mostly a blank, which is a shame.

All you need to know about Longworth is this:

Like too many politicians of his day, Longworth got that stupid twinge of guilt when he was about to die in April 1931.  He ordered his family to destroy all his personal papers.  The only things saved (available today in the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress) were a few scrapbooks, speeches, and letters from famous people.

One of these old scrapbooks, though, contained a gem.  It was from 1887 when Longworth was an 18 year-old junior at Harvard.   Nick loved playing poker with friends, and, in his scrapbook, he actually saved the five cards he drew in a game one night that December: a royal straight flush.
Longworth as the well-dress House Speaker.

Today, a century and a quarter later, that royal straight flush is enshrined as Nick Longworth's permanent monument, more fitting than any building, statue, or round of boring speeches.

Longworth understood his luck.  "Suave." "Polished." "Affable." "Easygoing."  That's how people usually described him.  "Longworth is a gregarious creature who loves his friends and who can find loveableness in his most pronounced political enemies," one newsman wrote.  He wore morning suits, spats, and often carried a gold-handled cane.  That, and, according to the same reporter,  he could "wear spats and look as if he had been born into them."  Partly, this is because he was.

Nick Longworth's luck started early.  His parents were scions of one of the richest, oldest families in Cincinnati.  They sent him to Harvard, then Harvard Law School, then had him finish his law degree back in Ohio.  They helped him launch a political career that sent him to Washington, D.C.  as a Congressmen just four years out of school.  There, young Nick Longworth managed to win the heart of the city's most sought-after bride, Alice Roosevelt, the vivacious oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.  This made him an instant celebrity and power.

Longworth House Office Building, opened in 1933.
Longworth lost his House seat in 1912.  He had broken a cardinal rule that year by siding against his own father-in-law, Roosevelt, in that year's Presidential election.  Alice never forgave him.  But Nick re-gained his seat two years later and resumed his climb as if nothing had happened.

Combine luck with charm and some skill, and by 1923 Longworth had risen to become the House Republican Majority Leader, the most effective in years, then Speaker in 1925.   Calvin Coolidge reigned in Washington back then, and Longworth, a staunch conservative, fit right in.   He reasserted the powers of the Speaker in ways unseen since the fall of Joe Cannon in 1910, and also forged a close friendship with Democratic leader John Nance Garner, himself a future Speaker and Vice President.  Garner, Longworth, and a floating clique of friends met regularly in a secluded Capitol hideaway office they called the "Board of Education" where booze flowed freely despite Prohibition. "I was the heathen and Nick was the aristocrat," Garner liked to joke.  It resulted in a Congress that got its work done.

Many House Speakers are utterly forgotten after they leave office, but, even here, Nick Longworth got lucky.  In his final years as Speaker, he had the good fortune to preside over planning of what would become the second House Office building, which would bear his name until today.  He died in 1931, shortly after losing the Speakership to his Democratic friend John Nance Garner.  His wife Alice would live another 50 years, a favorite Washington solon until 1980.

Luck is good.  Enjoy it when you have it.  And if you happen to draw a royal straight flush, save it.  Don't be stupid and throw it away.