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Posted Sep 26, 2013, 11:33 am
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John McCain took to the floor of the Senate after a long speech (which, as numerous sources have reminded us, was not a filibuster) by Sen. Ted Cruz. It was, he hoped, a way of bringing the Texan down a peg or two after what he and many of his colleagues saw as grandstanding.
McCain’s move recalled a similar speech by another Arizona senator nearly 80 years ago. In that case, though, it was a Democrat scolding a fellow Democratic senator who was grandstanding from the political left.
Henry Fountain Ashurst is largely forgotten now, but was one of the more important political figures in Arizona in the decades before and after statehood. He was born in Nevada, but moved to Arizona as a child and worked as a cowboy and lumber salesman. His lifetime ambition, however, was to be a U.S. senator. When he was 10, he scrawled “Henry Fountain Ashurst, United States Senator,” where his name would go on his notebook. He had a gift for rhetoric and honed his craft by entertaining fellow cowboys with his talks by the campfire. He was elected to the territorial House of Representatives in 1897 at the age of 23. He climbed the political ladder, and became one of Arizona’s first two senators in 1912.
“Five Syllable Henry,” as he was called, quickly made a name for himself in the senate as a long talker, even by the standards of that body. In 1914 he gave a long speech in favor of women’s suffrage, so long that time had run out to vote on the bill in question.
In 1932, Ashurst was joined in the Senate by Huey Long, a fiery progressive from Louisiana. Although originally supportive of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Long’s populism and style led his colleagues and the president to regard him as a demagogue, and his grip on Louisiana politics even led to allegations of dictatorial ambitions.
As time passed, Long advocated for his own more radical alternative to the New Deal called Share the Wealth. There were worries about the practicality of the plan and whether or not it had more to do with Long’s ambitions than any more worthy goals. Long’s support became more strident and shrill, and by the time 1935 rolled around, his colleagues were sick of the sideshow.
On June 15, 1935, the senate debated amendments to the Social Security Act. Long had been hurling accusations at his fellow senators, which had become a common practice for him. Ashurst was given time to speak, and according to a New York Times account, he was ready:
By this time the tall Arizona Senator had drawn his prepared speech from the drawer of a desk and poised it atop some books. Looking over his glasses, Senator Ashurst smiled and began.
What followed was an unrelenting takedown of the Louisiana Senator, one called “devastating” by the Saturday Evening Post.
He compared the times he was living in, the Great Depression, to a storm at sea that brings all manner of creatures washed up on the shore. He saw the sometimes demagogic Long as like one of those creatures.
To all types of men, when confronted with any insecurity, whether it be economic, environmental, social or philosophical, there come dangerous thoughts, feelings and fears, and thus some men, usually called odd fish, are forced to the surface from the swamps of anonymity.
He went on.
Strictures, reproaches and intemperate speeches from the Senator of Louisiana are really the wailings of an apostle of despair; he has lost control of himself, he is trying to play billiards with elliptical billiard balls and a spiral cue.
He also talked about a curved telescope, one that Long could look through and see what he looked like to people standing at a distance away.
I will venture the suggestion that if the Senator from Louisiana should look through this telescope objectively, as he doubtless will someday, for he is of an inquiring mind, he will distinctly perceive a man frequently disrespectful of the rights and feelings of others, exalting himself with an unwarranted sense of superiority over others less gifted and fortunate than himself; a man too often taking undue advantage of his position here; a man of reckless abandon in speech and relentless forays upon those who disagree with him.
I express the hope that the American eagle will not be required to drop something upon the head of the Senator from Louisiana before he takes the hint and recognizes his true relation to the Senate and the country.
The New York Times called Long “chastened” by the attack and noted that the reply from the normally bombastic senator was “feeble.”
The Social Security Act was passed and signed into law by President Roosevelt two months later. Whether Long was humbled by the speech enough to change his ways is an open question; he was assassinated on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in September of that year.
It was Ashurst’s last term in the Senate. Ernest McFarland defeated him for renomination in 1940. He returned to Washington to serve on the Board of Immigration Appeals before finally going into retirement from government service. He tried his hand at acting, but it wasn’t exactly a stretch. His one role, in Otto Preminger’s 1962 film Advise and Consent, was as an aging Arizona senator.
He passed away later that year from complications due to a stroke.