Profile: Vice-President Alben Barkley

by Rick Howlett on July 13, 2010

To mark the centennial of the state Capitol building in Frankfort, WFPL and Kentucky Public Radio are spotlighting some of Kentucky’s top statesmen, influential political leaders who served the commonwealth in Frankfort or Washington, or both.

Todd Hatton has this profile of Paducah’s Alben Barkley, Vice-President in the Truman
Administration:

Audio MP3

When Alben W. Barkley became Vice-president in 1948, he’d been in Washington for 36 years, 22 of them in the U-S Senate and 10 of those as Democratic majority leader. It was the time of the Great War, the Great Depression and the Second World War, and Barkley would play a crucial role in the country’s transition into modern times, shepherding Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal through a divided congress. So, if you pay a bill from a TVA-supplied power company with money from your Social Security check, you can thank Alben Barkley.   

Barkley’s 1877 birth in a Graves County log cabin and early career as McCracken County Attorney and a county judge provided him with an insight into people that informed his politics.

“In my 40 years of public life in Washington, I have advanced that theory over the opposition of a great many people who believe in just standing still; that Uncle Sam or the government oughta be hitched to a post, that government and politics itself oughta stand still. Well now, the people don’t believe that, and I don’t believe it,” he said in 1953, defining his political philosophy in a Smithsonian Folkways interview.

Stephen Truitt, who’s a retired Washington attorney, and Alben Barkley’s grandson, elaborates:
“He thought that many problems, not all, but many, could only be solved at the federal level, particularly things like Social Security and flood control…which were already coming under attack by the time Truman took office. And he vigorously defended them then and would be defending them today!”

Truitt says the first draft of the Social Security Act was written in the mid-1930’s on Barkley’s front porch in Paducah. He also chaired joint committees investigating Pearl Harbor & the Nazi concentration camps in the mid 40s. Becoming Vice President didn’t slow him down.

“He was presiding on the Senate; he was very actively involved in negotiating with the parties. That would be a legislative role; there was nothing that prevented earlier vice presidents from doing that. He just seemed to do more of it,” Truitt said.

While that was a significant change in the office of the Vice-President, it wasn’t new to “The Veep.” Barkley changed the office to suit his strengths, using his oratory and good will to advance proposals from the Truman Administration to outlaw the poll tax, make lynching a federal crime, and establish national health insurance. And he did so with Harry Truman’s encouragement.   

“He was certainly the first vice president that routinely attended National Security Council meetings. And part of this was his own personality and the other part of it was Truman liked him and trusted him, and wanted him to do these things. He met with the president all the time, and was very important in his advice-giving to him,” said Truitt.

Barkley was also a skilled storyteller. That ability allowed him to navigate rough political waters and, in one case, get F-D-R to laugh so hard Secret Service agents rushed in to check on the President’s safety. Barkley told Roosevelt the story of a stranger in town who was so taken with a certain preacher’s Sunday sermon that he got a little carried away in his praise:

“And he said, ‘That was a damn good sermon you preached today.’ ‘Well,’ the minister said, ‘I like your compliment but I don’t like your language.’ ‘Yes,’ the stranger said, ‘that was such a damn good sermon that I dropped $100 in the plate when it passed.’ The preacher said, ‘The hell you did!’”

Stephen Truitt says that in the end, his grandfather’s most profound legacy was the New Deal. Truitt says the program went hand in hand with his grandfather’s deeply-held belief that sometimes Americans need a little bit of a boost from their government to reach their fullest potential.

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