Alben Barkley: A Life in Politics by James K. Libbey (review)
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Alben Barkley: A Life in Politics. By James K. Libbey. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Pp. 360. $39.95 cloth)

Outside the Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol, an impressive bust of Alben Barkley projects the impression of a serious, steady, and substantial statesman. His service as Senate majority leader and vice president certainly exhibited those qualities, but Barkley could also be loquacious, nimble, and temperamental, a mix that sustained his long career. Barkley has long deserved a full biography, which James K. Libbey has now provided in this thoroughly researched and well-reasoned volume.

Libbey devotes careful attention to Barkley’s roots in western Kentucky, where the future politician was born in the proverbial log house. The son of a tenant farmer, Barkley doggedly worked his way out of poverty. Libbey traces his political path from his first race for county attorney to a failed campaign for president, each marked by such energy and endurance that he became known as “The Iron Man.”

Kentucky has produced more than its share of legislative leaders in Congress, often requiring them to balance northern and southern, liberal and conservative interests. Starting off as a limited-government Jeffersonian Democrat, Barkley arrived in Congress at the beginning of Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and he soon embraced Wilson’s domestic reforms and internationalism. The first-term congressman drew notice for his oratorical skills, offering speeches that mixed reason with humor and storytelling. Barkley also kept closely attuned to public opinion. His dramatic switch from dry to wet on Prohibition followed the polls and demonstrated his agility in coping with controversial issues.

As a senator during the New Deal, Barkley became a trusted lieutenant to Majority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas. The gruff Robinson relied on Barkley’s gentler abilities to sway votes. When Robinson died in 1937, Barkley was elected majority leader by a single vote, thanks to Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented intervention. A presidential letter indicated his preference for the more reliable Barkley [End Page 86] but also left the perception that he was beholden to the White House, which undermined his authority. Barkley had the further misfortune of becoming leader just after Roosevelt’s court-packing plan divided the Democrats’ liberal and conservative wings. As he struggled haplessly to gain control, the press dubbed him “Bumbling Barkley.”

The burden of leadership eventually caused Barkley to explode in 1944, when Roosevelt vetoed a tax bill he had supported, for being “not for the needy but for the greedy.” The majority leader resigned and encouraged Congress to override the veto. The next day, Senate Democrats unanimously re-elected him leader and showered him with new respect. The incident solidified his majority leadership but it likely cost him the vice-presidential nomination that year, which went instead to Senator Harry Truman.

Persistence is a running theme of this biography. Barkley’s fiery convention address in 1948 energized the dispirited Democrats and resulted in his nomination for vice president. Libbey regards Barkley as a transitional vice president, the last to split his time evenly between presiding over the Senate and carrying out executive-branch functions. A second marriage to an attractive widow also boosted the popularity of the “Veep” (a term coined by his grandson). Had Barkley been younger and in better health that popularity might have achieved a presidential nomination in 1952. Passed over but not ready to retire, the seventy-six-year-old Barkley returned to Kentucky to win yet another Senate election. He settled cheerfully into the Senate’s back row with other freshmen but served only briefly before dying on stage after delivering another spirited speech.

In this favorable biography, which does not hesitate to challenge its subject’s occasional exaggerations and omissions, James Libbey has tapped an array of manuscripts and oral histories to provide an authoritative account of an exceptional political leader. [End Page 87]

Donald A. Ritchie

DONALD A. RITCHIE is historian emeritus of the United States Senate and the author of The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction (2010).

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