The Autumn Garden dramaturgy: Vice President Barkley

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Vice President Alben William Barkley (445) – (November 24, 1877 – April 30, 1956) was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate from Paducah, Kentucky, majority leader of the Senate, and the thirty-fifth Vice President of the United States.

Barkley was born Willie Alben Barkley in a log cabin near Lowes, Graves County, Kentucky. His parents, John Wilson Barkley and Electra Eliza (Smith) Barkley, were deeply religious tenant farmers. He graduated from Marvin College in 1897, where he excelled in speech and debate. He worked his way through college with a full-time janitorial job. Barkley later attended Emory College, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was a member of Delta Tau Delta Social Fraternity, graduated in 1900, and then attended the University of Virginia Law School.

House of Representatives

Barkley was elected to the Sixty-third and to the six succeeding Congresses (1913 – 1927) representing Kentucky’s 1st district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He gained statewide stature by leading a crusade against the coal and gambling special interests during his 1923 campaign for Governor of Kentucky. Barkley narrowly lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. However, that sole electoral defeat actually helped propel him into the U.S. Senate in 1926. The race gave him name recognition throughout Kentucky and won him the title “Iron Man,” for his ability to give as many as sixteen speeches a day on the campaign trail.


Barkley was first elected to the United States Senate in 1926; he would be reelected in 1932, 1938, and again in 1944.

Button from Barkley’s 1944 campaign for Senate

Barkley was the keynote speaker at the 1932 national Democratic convention which chose Franklin Roosevelt as its party nominee for President. The following year, he became vice chairman of the Democratic Conference and assistant to Senate majority leader Joseph T. Robinson. After Robinson’s death during the court-packing incident of 1937, Barkley narrowly defeated Pat Harrison of Mississippi in a 38-37 vote to become the new majority leader. He was aided by the vocal support of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the President’s “Dear Alben” letter submitted to the Washington press corps, which highlighted Roosevelt’s desire for Barkley to become majority leader. Barkley’s most critical election came in the 1938 primary when he defended the New Deal against conservative Governor Albert B. “Happy” Chandler. After a bitter race in which Barkley’s diligent campaigning was bolstered by Roosevelt’s strong endorsement, Barkley handily defeated the sitting Governor, receiving 56% of the vote.

Barkley continued to serve as Senate majority leader from 1937 to 1947 and Senate minority leader from 1947 to 1949. He shepherded Roosevelt’s agenda through the Senate, sponsoring financing for World War II and the lend-lease bill, which prevented Britain from capitulating to the Nazis. However, he broke with Roosevelt in 1944 on tax issues. When Roosevelt vetoed a tax bill because the rates were too low, Barkley resigned his leadership position, and called for a veto override. The veto was overridden and Barkley was unanimously returned as Majority Leader, clearly demonstrating that he, not the President, controlled the Senate.

During the 1944 Democratic convention, Barkley was snubbed as vice-presidential candidate in favor of Harry S. Truman, Senator from Missouri. Barkley unwaveringly supported the Roosevelt/Truman ticket and continued his service in the Senate, helping to ensure passage of the United Nations treaty through the Senate.

Barkley continued in his career after the death of his wife in 1947, and his popularity soared. He was ranked as the most popular Democrat, and vied with General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Look magazine’s most “fascinating” American.

Vice President: “The Veep”

Barkley was nominated for Vice-President at the 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia following a rousing speech that garnered some support for his nomination as President. President Truman was widely considered an unpopular candidate for re-election against Governor Dewey of New York.

Despite their underdog status, Truman and Barkley continued to campaign doggedly. Barkley coined the term “Give ’em hell, Harry” as Truman was leaving Washington on his “whistle-stop” train across the country. Barkley’s “prop-stops” by airplane also initiated a new phase in presidential campaigning by air. He was 71 years old at the time of his election and inauguration, the oldest vice president to date. Barkley was elected Vice President on the Democratic ticket with President Harry S. Truman in 1948 and was inaugurated January 20, 1949. Because of his legislative experience, Truman insisted on his inclusion in all cabinet-level meetings and on the National Security Council, which made him the first working vice-president in U.S. history.

In his first year as Vice President, Barkley became the only vice president to marry while in office. At the age of 71, he married Jane Hadley Barkley, a widow from St. Louis, capturing national attention.

Barkley was popularly known as “the Veep”. His young grandson, Stephen M. Truitt, had suggested this abbreviated alternative to the cumbersome “Mr. Vice President.” When Barkley told the story at a press conference, the newspapers printed it, and the title stuck. Barkley’s successor as vice president, Richard Nixon, declined to continue the nickname, saying that it had been bestowed on Barkley affectionately and belonged to him. However, the term has continued to be used as shorthand for Vice-President.

In 1949, he returned to his alma mater, Emory University, to receive an LL.D. degree and deliver the commencement address, an occasion which became the first Emory event ever televised. Later that year, he received the Congressional Gold Medal.

In December 1950, a Paducah site (the location of the former Kentucky Ordnance Works) was chosen from a short list of eight locations for construction of a new gaseous diffusion plant. It was speculated that Vice President Barkley, a former Paducah, KY resident, may have helped tip the scales toward the selection of the Paducah site.[1]

  • Vice President to:       Harry S Truman – Democrat
  • Dates Served: Barkley served as Vice President from 1949 – 1953.
  • Political Party: Barkley was a Democrat, from Kentucky.
  • Born: 1877.
  • Died: 1956, at the age of 79.
  • The presidential opponents during the 1948 campaign were:
    • Thomas Dewey – Republican – New York Governor
    • Henry Wallace – Progressive Party – Ex-Vice President under FDR from Iowa
    • Strom Thurmond – Dixiecrats – South Carolina Governor and never-ending Senator
  • Campaign issues in 1948:
    • The issue this year was that everyone “knew” that Truman would loose. The Democrats had been in power now for 16 years and it was time for a change, said the Republicans. Truman was viewed as an accidental President who was holding down the fort until a stronger leader would be elected. Dewey was confident he would win and travelled the country painting the Democrats as a tired party that needed to be put out to roost. Truman wasn’t helped by the fact that former VP Henry Wallace was sucking off the Liberal vote and Strom Thurmond was sucking off the old-line Southern Democrat votes, but Harry wasn’t going to go quietly. He set out on a 30,000 mile tour of the country showing citizens his brand of plain-spoken, honest, barn-yard bluntness that people grew to admire. “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” became the standard response from the audience when he spoke. Truman liked to respond that he never set out to give anyone Hell. He just told the truth and this was Hell to the Republicans. He attacked the current Congress for having passed hardly any legislation that year and reminded people that he had desegregated the military. On the eve of election almost every newspaper in the nation predicted that Dewey would win, and even printed some editions with the “right” story. But they were wrong, and Harry won the election by a comfortable margin.

  • Notable Facts about Alben Barkley:
    • Barkley was the last Vice President born in a log cabin.
    • Barkley was the first Vice President to be called the “Veep”, a word coined by his 10 year-old grandson.
    • Religious affiliation: Barkley was a Methodist. But figuring out what his personal views on religion were was harder than trying to figure out what Harry S Truman’s middle-initial stood for. Barkley kept his religious views, if any, to himself in public.
    • Originally a lawyer, Barkley was elected County Prosecutor for McCracken County, Kentucky in 1905, serving until 1909. He was then elected County Judge, serving from 1909 – 1913.
    • He was elected to the US House of Representatives, representing Kentucky from 1913 – 1927, the was elected to the US Senate, representing Kentucky from 1927 – 1949. He became Senate Majority Leader in 1937, pushing through many of President Roosevelt’s New Deal and wartime legislation.
    • He was nominated for Vice President on Truman’s 1948 campaign after having given a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention. Truman made a point of regularly briefing Barkley on policy issues, since Truman remembered how he had been snubbed while Veeping for Roosevelt.
    • In 1948 Alben Barkley became the first Vice President to get married while in office. Barkley, age 71, married Jane Hadley, age 38.
    • In 1952 Truman announced that he would not run for another term, and Barkley was briefly considered for the Democratic nomination, but lost out to Adlai Stevenson.
    • After leaving office, Barkley once again ran for the U.S. Senate in 1955 and easily won, at the age of 75. But his new Senatorial career lasted only 16 months, interrupted by his death that following year.
    • Barkley died one evening in 1956 when he traveled to Lee University in Washington to attend a “mock convention”. During his keynote speech he nobly said, “I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty”, then suddenly fell down dead of a heart attack.

· Notable Events during his Vice Presidency:

  • The Fair Deal, in 1949. First came Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal”, then Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, then Truman defined a new domestic policy that he called the “Fair Deal”. This package of proposed legislation made provisions for the Housing Act of 1949 which funded inner-city urban renewal projects, desegregation of the Military, an increase of the minimum wage, and extension of Social Security coverage. It also contained a provision for a national health insurance but this was too much for Conservatives this last detail failed to pass Congress.
  • Korean War, 1950 – 1953. In June of 1950 the Communist Army from North Korea invaded South Korea, backed by the Chinese. Bound by the new Truman Doctrine, Harry convinced the United Nations to authorize a counter-attack. General MacArthur led what was referred to as a UN force, but which was composed of 90% Americans and South Koreans, in an invasion of the Korean peninsula that September. Landing at Inchon, MacArthur’s forces chased the Communist Army all the way up north of Seoul. But then all of a sudden hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers poured across the border like ants, this time chasing MacArthur’s troops all the way back down to the bottom of the peninsula. This made MacArthur very upset and he requested Truman to officially declare war against North Korea and “use all means at our disposal” to win.Truman, however, turned down his request, fearing that it would lead to the use of nuclear weapons between the US and the Soviets, who were also supporting the Communist North Koreans. More than a little put off by the little man in Washington, General MacArthur publicly criticized the American policy in Korea. Insulted by MacArthur’s insubordination, Truman relieved him of his command and replaced him with another general, Matthew Ridgeway. Truman drew the loud protests of just about everyone, since MacArthur was a popular war hero, having commanded the Pacific fleets in the war against Japan. MacArthur was given a full-fledged ticker-tape parade down the streets of Manhattan upon his return, but Truman ignored it all and initiated peace talks with North Korea in June of 1951, but nothing came of it during Truman’s term as President.

  • Communist Spy Trials. In 1950 a young House Representative from California named Richard Nixon was named chairman of the House Un-American Activities Special Subcommittee devoted to investigating charges that Washington was crawling with Communists. Time magazine printed an article accusing former State Department official Alger Hiss of being a a Commie spy. Nixon jumped at the charge and brought Hiss to the floor of Congress for questioning. Nixon grilled Hiss during the hearings like he was Perry Mason, but Hiss denied it all. When some microfilm was mysteriously “discovered” inside of a pumpkin on a farm owned by the editor of Time magazine that contained photos of sensitive State Department documents, Hiss was somehow blamed for their existence, and was convicted of perjury. (Due to legal complications he was immune from being charged with espionage).In 1951 two US civilians named Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of spying and passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets, which resulted in their executions. They were the first American civilians to be executed for espionage.

    Drawing on the growing paranoia, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list that contained the names of 205 Communist spies in the State Department. The number of names on this list kept changing with each speech he made, and he never produced an ounce of evidence to prove his dramatic claims, but he managed to damage the reputations of countless people even suspected of being on his list. He charged the previous two Administrations of having been involved in 20 years of treason, and kept up his manic witch-trials on into the next Administration.

  • Attempted assassination, 1950. On November 1, 1950 Harry Truman was taking a nap on the second floor of a house across from the White House, which was undergoing repairs at the time. Two armed men from Puerto Rico approached the house intending to kill the President in order to protest American control of their island. They walked towards the front door but were intercepted by White House guards before they reached it. Several shots were fired from all sides, with one of the would-be assassins and one of the guards being killed, and the other assassin and 2 guards injured. Harry heard the commotion and ran to the window, but the guards yelled for him to get back inside, which he did and wasn’t harmed. The surviving assassin, Oscar Collazo, age 36, was convicted of murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to death, but the following year Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. 29 years later he was later granted clemency and released by President Jimmy Carter, in 1979.
  • Curly Howard, life-long Stooge and part-time alcoholic, dies an early death at the age of 48 after a series of strokes, on Jan 18, 1952.
  • The Hydrogen Bomb, 1952. An upgraded version of the Atomic Bomb, the H-bomb packed a much bigger whallop than its predecessor, using a fusion reaction rather than a fission reaction. Much more radiation is created, therefore being much more lethal. The US beta-tested one of the new line of bombs by detonating it in October, 1952 in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific ocean. The Soviets demoed their own version shortly after.
  • Mr. Potato Head is invented by Hasbro, in 1952.
  • The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1951, limiting Presidential terms to no more than two.


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