Texas Politicians Flirt with Fascists, but 81 years ago Sam Rayburn Prepared the Nation to Defeat Them
Over the past weekend, most of the Republican leadership of Texas took to the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting in Dallas. Like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who also appeared, they supported extreme right-wing positions on Christian nationalism, immigration, and gay rights.
This is the same Viktor Orban who has all but eliminated a free press in Hungary and made it much easier for himself and his party to win future elections.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick "described the 'Texas way' in a disturbing, warped message of Christian nationalism, misinterpreting the Bible and reaching farther to the right than anything Donald Trump has said," according to Nicole Russell, writing for the Ft. Worth StarTelegram. "'We’re a nation founded upon the words of God,''" he said. “'He wrote the Constitution. He empowered them.'”
"While Christians believe God calls his people to many fields, including politics, Patrick’s speech imploring the CPAC audience to pray aloud with him, not in the name of salvation or forgiveness but of politics and the reinstatement of MAGA, demonstrates a kind of Christian nationalism that’s harmful to everyone."
Sen. Ted Cruz, fresh from Turning Point USA's annual Student Action Summit in Tampa, Florida, where he told the crowd that his personal pronouns were "kiss my ass," tried to make the most of his stage time at CPAC. "Cruz proudly labeled the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference 'dangerous radicals' during his speech at the conference on Friday. The remark earned him one of the loudest rounds of applause from the boisterous crowd of several hundred gathered in the main event area of the Dallas Hilton Anatole."
While such pandering to authoritarian far-right leaders is the performance art of Texas politicians today, one preeminent Texan, a legend in Washington, DC, for decades, was largely responsible 81 years ago this month for making sure America was prepared to fight in World War Two. At the time, Fascist propaganda had merged with American isolationism--mainly among Republicans--to create opposition to initiating and extending the draft.
On the 50th anniversary of Sam Rayburn's accomplishment, the Washington Post published How Mr. Sam Saved the Draft, a fascinating story that perfectly captures the way he shaped legislation to serve the nation at its greatest time of peril.
Congress had approved the Selective Service and Training Act effective September 16, 1940, but the millions of young men who were drafted or volunteered, many of them National Guardsmen, were only bound to serve for 12 months. Their disbandment would have left the nation in dire circumstances on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Of course at the time many American chose to believe that war could be avoided, led by prominent America Firsters including Charles Lindbergh. On July 21, 1941, with the original act set to expire in only a few months, FDR declared a state of emergency and asked for an extension.
The Senate acted quickly and favorably. However, the "Republican leadership viewed opposition to draft extension as a political opportunity just too good to ignore." So strong was the opposition that FDR dispatched George Marshall, held in near universal high esteem, to plead the case before the House.
"'You put the case very well,' one Republican congressman told him, 'but I will be damned if I am going along with Mr. Roosevelt.'" Faced with such stiff partisan opposition in the lower chamber, there was, in the end, only one man who could lead the House to do the right thing for the country--and for the entire world. Mr. Sam had been speaker for less than a year when he took on the task.
"The vote was set for Monday, Aug. 11 but Rayburn put it off for one day out of respect for a Republican member who had died over the weekend. With the president out of town -- meeting secretly in Newfoundland with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to frame the 'Atlantic Charter' -- Rayburn spent the additional day roaming the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to win over recalcitrant Democrats and wavering Republicans. His lobbying style was like the man himself--honest, direct and intensely personal without a hint of intimidation. 'I wish you would stand by me because it means a lot to me,' he would say. Mr. Sam, up close and personal, was a hard man to refuse."
After more than 10 hours of debate on August 12, the vote was 204 to 201 in favor of extension. But suddenly one wayward Democrat who had voted "aye" called to be recognized and changed his vote, making the total 203 to 202 in favor. When yet another Congressman rose, possibly leading to a series of additional defections, he made a procedural mistake that gave Rayburn what he needed to drop the speaker's gavel and end debate. The vote stood, America had a draft, and the nation was prepared enough to rebound from the tragedy of Pearl Harbor.
Not all the Congressmen were happy, of course, and at least some stepped out of line. "'The Chair does not intend to have his word questioned by the gentleman from Minnesota or anyone else,' Rayburn told one member icily. Opponents got the message, and the debate fizzled out."
One word above all defined Sam Rayburn: Integrity. When he died in 1961, during the first year of the Kennedy Administration, three presidents--Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy--came to his funeral and sat side by side in the First Baptist Church of Bonham, Texas, as did the complex man Mr. Sam mentored, Lyndon Johnson. They and thousands of others came to honor the man whose 17 years as speaker still stands as the longest tenure on record.
Although Bonham is only about 70 miles from Dallas, where the CPAC meeting has been held two years in a row, the distance between Mr. Sam and the Republican politicians who paraded themselves before partisan zealots this past weekend seems to be on the order of light years.
As Mr. Sam was fond of sayng, "There are no degrees of honorableness. You either are or you aren't." Light years of distance indeed.