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  • Alben Barkley: A Life in Politicsby James K. Libbey
  • Clay Bailey
Alben Barkley: A Life in Politics. By James K. Libbey. Topics in Kentucky History. ( Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Pp. [viii], 347. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8131-6713-8.)

This laudatory biography, part of the Topics in Kentucky History series, reflects decades of writing and research by James K. Libbey on Alben Barkley, Kentucky statesman, Senate majority leader, and vice president under Harry S. Truman. In this well-documented overview of Barkley's life, Libbey offers a window into Washington, D.C., politics from Woodrow Wilson's presidency through Truman's. In the process, this analysis of Barkley's career reveals threads connecting Progressive reform, the New Deal, and the Fair Deal, as well as the emergence of the New Deal coalition. Interspersed are fascinating anecdotes, from young Barkley's selling defective crockery door-to-door, to his 1948 "prop-stop" cross-country campaign by plane in tandem with Truman's whistle-stop campaign by train (p. 253).

Libbey's admiration for Barkley is understandable. Like better-known Tennessee statesman Cordell Hull, Barkley came from humble agrarian circumstances, seized what educational opportunities he could, studied law, and became a dedicated and effective public servant. Cordell Hull Dam controls water on the Cumberland River, which flows into Lake Barkley. Both are appropriately utilitarian monuments to humble public servants who sought to make life better through activist government, not just for their rural constituents, but also for peoples far beyond, as the United States emerged as a superpower. During much of the time that Hull served as secretary of state (1933–1945), Barkley served as Senate majority leader (1937–1946). Born in the Jackson Purchase portion of Kentucky, Barkley was not far removed from frontier life and struggled to transcend a largely subsistence childhood. With a strong moral commitment kindled by circuit-riding Methodist preachers, Barkley developed as an orator by honing his skills at church and school, and he displayed his Protestant work ethic in the fields and the road crews of western Kentucky. Unlike many politicians in the Jacksonian tradition, Barkley never burnished or touted the fact that he was born in a log cabin. He did not need to. His homespun storytelling and self-deprecating humor gave him away. Barkley was beloved by the nation and provided a sense of reassurance and ethics in crisis-laden decades. Barkley was consistently on the right side of history. Invariably on the side of small farmers and workers (not the powerful coal, tobacco, or horse lobbies), Barkley was never a demagogic populist. Barkley's frustrations as Senate majority leader in the late 1930s over a Senate filibuster to thwart a federal antilynching bill's passage ring familiar. The reader is left yearning for public servants of character and courage like Barkley.

The reader also is left wanting more analysis and clarification on what made Barkley a powerful orator. Libbey often notes Barkley's speaking ability and cites moments at which he rallied audiences, such as a House speech in favor of the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act in 1913 or his farewell speech at the 1952 [End Page 470]Democratic National Convention, but Libbey does not provide analysis of content or delivery. One also senses that Barkley advanced so far by being loyal to Democratic presidents and the party, and through political shrewdness. Often it seems Barkley was more spectator and witness to key decisions and pivotal events than formulator of policy, but Libbey does not explore these realities. In the end, Libbey has offered a much-needed overview of Alben Barkley's life and career, as well as a window into the emergence of modern America.

Clay Bailey
Montgomery Bell Academy


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pp. 470-471
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