Q&A with James Grant
BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: James Grant, why did you think the public would be interested in reading a book about the life and times of Thomas B. Reed?
JAMES GRANT, AUTHOR, ”MR. SPEAKER! THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THOMAS B. REED, THE MAN WHO BROKE THE FILIBUSTER”: I had no idea about the public. I still don’t. What I knew is that I would be delighted to spend three or four years in the company of this wonderful man.
When you write a biography, it’s as if someone comes to live in your home. This person never leaves, has no job, stays for the weekends, and you have to learn to live with him or her. And ever so helpful if you come to like him.
And instantly, I knew that Reed and I would be fast friends, and I was delighted to welcome him into my house.
LAMB: Why did you know instantly?
GRANT: I came across an essay that was included in Barbara Tuchman’s book on the turn of the 20th century, ”The Proud Tower.” And in this book, Reed figured for a chapter.
And it was just a fabulous sketch, this most interesting and sadly obscure figure in American politics.
It turns out that he was instrumental in changing the House from a talking shop into something that, for better or worse, was engaged in active legislation. He was a full participant in all the drama of the monetary debates of the late 19th century.
He was all of that. And besides, he was funny. And, Brian, who could resist?
LAMB: I should say that he was the 13th-longest serving speaker in the history of the United States and the House of Representatives. And there have been 53.
What’s the thing you remember most about him?
GRANT: Well, he was known in the day as ”Czar Reed.” It was not altogether a compliment, although he regarded it as flattering indeed.
And he was impugned as a tyrant, because he overturned a longstanding custom in the House that the minority would be on equal parliamentary footing with the majority, which meant that the minority party in the House could simply, by refusing to acknowledge its presence in a roll call, eliminate the evident quorum. There was seemingly a quorum in the House, because you could count the noses. Except if the noses refused to speak, then there was no quorum, no business, and the house sat staring at itself.
Reed thought this was a great affront against the great gales of improvement and progress in the 19th century. He wanted to bring the House into modernity, and he did so, with the so-called Reed Rules.
LAMB: When did he live?
GRANT: 1839 to 1902.
LAMB: Where was he from?
GRANT: He was from Maine. He was from Portland, Maine, and, in fact, lived there, retained a residence there, even after he went to Wall Street after his congressional career. He was very attached to the Pine Tree State.
LAMB: How long did he serve in Congress?
GRANT: Twelve terms.
Can I have an essay exam rather than a multiple choice exam? Some of these questions are getting hard.
But 12 consecutive terms, including three terms as speaker.
LAMB: How did he become speaker? What was it that, you know, he didn’t
GRANT: Well, he, by sheer force of intellect and by prowess in the cut-and-thrust of debate, and the devastating wit with which he dealt with the Democratic enemy, all of that was in the credit column to his claims to be speaker.
Then, too, he was a political leader. He was people just looked up to him. He wasn’t exactly physically magnetic. He was immense. He stood 6’3” and his weight sometimes approached 300 pounds.
But he had a force of personality and of intellect that was overwhelming.
LAMB: We just finished a series of interviews with David McCullough and his book about Americans in Paris. And one of them is the artist that did this cover on your book, John Singer Sargent.
GRANT: Thomas B. Reed flummoxed John Singer Sargent, who had acknowledged how difficult is the art of portraiture. Sargent said that a portrait is a painting in which there’s something wrong with the mouth.
So, it’s hard to please the audience of the subject being painted. With Reed, he simply he couldn’t do it. Reed has this Delphic face. You know, he’s ever so bland to look at. Sargent was charmed by the man himself. They sat together in Paris for the painting.
And Reed just delighted Sargent, and vice versa. They had a wonderful time. But Sargent simply couldn’t capture Reed through his face.
LAMB: How did he turn out to be doing Reed in Paris? What was the introduction to
GRANT: Well, Reed was a Francophile. And he went to Europe periodically during the off when he was not running for Congress again, he would take the summer and go to Paris. And he sometimes London and sometimes Paris but he studied French as a grown man.
He engaged a French tutor in Washington. And when he wasn’t in the House on public business, he would hang out with his French tutor. They would take walks, sit in Reed’s home and converse in French. Reed kept a French diary.
So, he loved the culture and the letters, and the sights and the sounds of Paris, although so much a son was he of Maine, that once in Paris, he got some fish balls, and he fried them up as he might if he had been at home in Portland.
So, he said, ”I speak French like a native a native of the United States.”
LAMB: You have a picture of him in your book where he’s a younger age, where he’s quite handsome and looks so much different than the portrait of him. He changed a lot.
GRANT: Well, when he at the unveiling of the portrait, and as the curtains were drawn, there was a polite but evidently shocked silence, which as broken by Reed saying, ”Well, I hope my enemies are satisfied.”
LAMB: Where did he go to college?
LAMB: Why there?
GRANT: It was the place to go if you were an up-and-coming and very bright kid from Maine. It was an elite school, but much more narrowly focused on Maine than it has since become.
LAMB: And that’s located where?
GRANT: Outside Portland?
LAMB: Is it
GRANT: If I had the index to that book, Brian, I could identify it in a second.
LAMB: You should get it right now.
When did you write this book?
GRANT: I can answer that question.
I started about three or four years ago. That’s kind of vague, though, isn’t it? I started four years ago four years and three days ago, Brian.
LAMB: When did you finish it?
GRANT: I was finished about a year ago.
LAMB: And what book is this for you? How many have you done?
GRANT: I have lost count.
LAMB: You’ve got the books in the front of the flap here on this book. And the reason I ask that is
GRANT: I think it’s about seven.
LAMB: But the first one was on Bernard Baruch.
GRANT: Yes. I’ve mastered three centuries, Brian, 18th, 19th and 20th.
LAMB: Well, where did it start for you?
GRANT: My first book was a biography of the speculator and political advisor and legend, Bernard M. Baruch, whose dates were 1870 to 1965.
LAMB: But before that, though, you where did you first write for a living?
GRANT: Oh, I started in journalism at the ”Baltimore Sun.” And after a couple of years there, went to New York and got a job at Barron’s. I had since become a financial journalist. And at Barron’s, I began this business of writing books nights, weekends and the Fourth of July.
LAMB: Why did you get interested in money?
GRANT: I don’t know. It seemed like a timely subject.
When I was before I went to college, I was in the Navy, and got out. And between my discharge date and the beginning of the first semester at Indiana University, I got a job on Wall Street.
I was the only kid in the room who was not making a hundred grand a year. This was 1967, when $100,000 was real money. I was making $75 a week.
But I thought that money was an interesting subject, looking around at the wealth surrounding me. And so, I had a couple of summers working at this brokerage house.
So, by the time I graduated and got my first job with the ”Baltimore Sun,” I was a renowned financial expert within the ”Baltimore Sun” city room.
Imagine, an economics degree and as much as, like, 12 months working on Wall Street, I might have been Bernard M. Baruch himself.
LAMB: But you were born in Manhattan?
GRANT: I was born in Manhattan.
LAMB: Grew up in Manhattan?
GRANT: ”Long-Gisland,” as we say.
LAMB: How did you get all the way out to Indiana University?
GRANT: I flew.
But I flew in the interest of pursuing what I thought at the time a career in music. I was a French horn player in high school, a very serious one. But I quit my first college experience after a semester and went in the Navy for a couple of years, where I did not play the French horn. I was a gunner’s mate.
By the time I got back and confronted school, I realized that Indiana, by the way, was a Mecca of horn playing. These were serious people who had not quit and gone into the Navy to be gunner’s mates. And I saw that there was really no place for me in that rather exalted circle of musicians, so I took up economics.
LAMB: But today and then we’ll talk about some of the other books GRANT’S Interest Rate Observer. How did your life go all the way down to that phrase? You make money selling a newsletter and conferences.
LAMB: Where does the GRANT’S Interest Rate Observer come
GRANT: Say it again, Brian, for the people on the West Coast.
I went to Barron’s after the ”Baltimore Sun.” I had by that time become a financial writer. And at Barron’s, there was one of these nasty intramural political spats that you see all the time in college English departments. The lower the wages, the more intense and petty the sources of contention.
I couldn’t stay at Barron’s. So, neither did I want to go off and get a job someplace. At Barron’s, one could see one’s own copy appearing in print without the intermediation of an editor, a meddling editor.
So, I felt, OK, so what I’ll do is start my own sheet. And I realized that, according to the surveys that Dow Jones ran, I had many tens of thousands of readers in my column. I thought, well, if only a few dozen thousands of those loyalists signed up for my publication, I would instantly have almost insurmountable tax problems, so rich would my family become.
So, about almost 30 years ago, I started GRANT’S. And I discovered well, I had one of the consummate adult experiences. One of those experiences is having children. Another is starting your own business and realizing that when people returned your calls when you were an employee, it wasn’t because of you. You were living on the borrowed luster and affiliation of the organization with which you worked.
And so, I had the ever so eye-opening experience of going from a kind of Who’s Who to who’s that, to borrow a phrase from the late Walter Wriston, you know. So, I took a salary at GRANT’S after about four years. And my wife supported the family on her investment banking job.
Since then, it’s become a terrific business, and I would heartily recommend entrepreneurship, especially after the first four years.
LAMB: What does it cost for somebody to subscribe to your
GRANT: Don’t even ask, Brian.
LAMB: Please, please, tell me.
GRANT: It’s close to $1,000.
LAMB: A year?
GRANT: A thousand dollars a year. And we’re running out of subscriptions. That’s how hot sales are going.
LAMB: And how much of your business is conferences?
GRANT: It’s a good part. It used to we do three a year, two in New York and one in London. They sell out gratifyingly. And it’s terrific. It’s all terrific.
LAMB: Bernard Baruch. What did you learn about him that matters?
GRANT: Well, he was he was kind of the George Soros of his day. He was a speculator who had the golden touch, and who also seemingly had the ear of the powers that be in politics.
The difference is that Soros has an agenda. He has a specific left-wing agenda, which he pushes overtly and publicly.
Baruch was more in the influence line. He was a Democrat of the old school, rather laissez-faire, hard money, work and save, low-tax Democrat of the kind that went out of fashion along about March 1933.
So, Baruch I also learned in studying Baruch that it’s important to have a biographical subject you can really like. Because I came to not to I admire Baruch for so many things, but he finally showed himself to be someone for whom getting along was more important than principle. And it became irksome.
If, as I say, one writes one’s books nights, weekends and the Fourth of July, you have to do it for love.
LAMB: So in the end, you didn’t like him.
GRANT: He was OK.
LAMB: The reason I ask that is because you clearly like Thomas Reed.
LAMB: And how did you get to know him?
GRANT: Let me say one last thing about Baruch before leaving. He was a great friend for the people who loved him. And many, many did.
My impatience with him was over his choosing to get along rather than to choose to stand on principle and be on the outside looking in. So, that’s Baruch.
Reed was a horse of a different color. He was a man of a certain bloody-minded principle, which shown forth most clearly and vividly in his stance towards the Spanish American difficulties with Spain that resulted in the Spanish American War.
It brought out his stand on principle. It brought out his more than sense of humor. It was altogether one of the I think one of the most pungent chapters in his life.
LAMB: But you point out early in the book that there’s I mean, as you read it, you begin to say, well, the Democrats then would be Republicans now, and the Republicans then would be Democrats how. How close is that? Is that right?
GRANT: The point survives the exaggeration. The Democrats then, probably the quintessential Democrat in those days, was a congressman long lost to memory. His name was William Holman. He represented Indiana.
And he was a Jeffersonian, pure and simple. He was a man of cultivated simplicity in habit. He was a man who was coined ”the watchdog of the Treasury.” He just he hated spending money.
He loved simplicity. He loved the idea that the Democratic Party, when out of power, could block legislation through the assertion of these parliamentary obstructionist techniques.
He was once caught out, was Holman, in the single known exception to his career as a Jeffersonian obstructionist of anything resembling what we would call today ”progressive” politics. He was almost, to his friends and to his adversaries he suddenly one day showed up at work, and he supported a bill to spend money.
People couldn’t what was this? This is Holman? What’s happened? Has his body been invaded by some no.
It turns out that Holman was log-rolling. Saint Holman was actually supporting some piece of skullduggery to get money spent in his home district.
So, knowing this, somebody mischievously got up in front of the House and quoted a couple of lines from Lord Byron. Let’s see if I can do this.
Sweet is the honest watchdog’s bark. As open bay open-mouthed as we come home.
And at this mocking of the watchdog of the Treasury, the House dissolved into laughter, and Holman’s bill was lost in this wonderful laughter.
Which, by the way, the characteristic of the quality of debate in the House at the time, people had nothing else to do except to amuse themselves except read. No video entertainment. They were most of them lawyers.
But despite that, Brian, despite being lawyers, they were educated people, well-read people. And they amused themselves with some very high-minded banter in the House. Some of it wasn’t especially high-minded, but some of it was.
So, this fellow quoting Lord Byron was characteristic of the quality of debate and the quality of banter in the House at the time.
LAMB: It’s funny that you should mention Holman, because I turned to page 271, and I want to quote a long paragraph here and get you to talk about this time in the history of the House.
”At 67 years of age, William S. Holman, Democrat of Indiana, was one of the House graybeards. He was first elected to the 38th Congress in 1858, and had for that reason a different view of partisanship than most of the younger colleagues. Not a few members kept pistols at their desks in those tempestuous days. Once a careless politician fishing around for a piece of paper accidentally discharged his weapon, sending a ball blasting into the desk in front of him, narrowly missing human flesh.”
Quote, ”’In an instant,’ as Holman told the story, ’there were fully 30 or 40 pistols in the air, and the scene looked more like a Texas bar room than the Congress of the United States.’”
Different place today. Or is it?
GRANT: Yes, well, yes. It’s different and yet the same. I sometimes wonder whether the nature of the debate might not be improved by just a few firearms in the House to enforce a certain level of decorum.
But I guess we don’t have we have metal detectors now.
LAMB: Did you find any pictures of any members of Congress back in those days carrying pistols?
GRANT: No. No, but you can tell with their eyes that they were packing heat.
Well, so many of them, Brian, by the time that Reed got into Congress 1876, and by that time, you know, many, if not most of the representatives were veterans of the Civil War. And they knew something about firearms. They knew something about firing at human beings.
And when people talked in the heat of debate and it got personal, as it sometimes did, you could tell, under the surface of things, they were not so far away from a challenge. Dueling was, you know, certainly on its way out, if not altogether out then.
But there was an undercurrent of rhetorical violence from time to time, including when Reed instituted his famous and quite tempestuous reforms.
LAMB: Born in 1839, as you said earlier, Tom Reed would have been, what, 22 or so at the beginning of the Civil War.
LAMB: Did he serve?
GRANT: He did. At first he went to California and pursued what he thought was to be his dream of doing something. He didn’t know. It wasn’t mining. He taught for a while. He was unhappy. He became a lawyer. He came back East.
He was all for the Union. He gave speeches, kind of martial speeches, which must have seemed odd to people in California. Here this guy, this strapping guy of 6’3”, who then 200 pounds, not 300, not in uniform.
And I gather, you know, one never knows, Reed must have felt the call to arms. One of his close friends at Bowdoin had been killed in the second battle of Bull Run.
So, he gets a commission in the Navy. And he’s one of the least martial-sounding military or naval titles extant, was acting assistant paymaster aboard the USS Sybil, which was a Union gunboat plying the Mississippi and tributaries in the last year of the Civil War.
LAMB: How long did he serve totally?
GRANT: Oh, 13, 14 months.
LAMB: And when he came out of the Navy, what did he do?
GRANT: He went back to Maine. He became he resumed his legal studies and opened a kind of a one-man practice, and waited for customers.
LAMB: You talked about his diary earlier. And it’s cited a lot in your book. Is the French version cited? Or is there an English version?
GRANT: Some of it was in English. Much of it was in French, and I have the French version. My high school French seeming to be inadequate to the occasion, I had it translated.
LAMB: Why do you think he wrote his diary in French?
GRANT: I think he was practicing French. He was a serious student of the French language. Also, I think he believed it imparted some discretion to what he was saying.
You know, it’s interesting. His family and his I’m not sure which one of his succeeding generations of Reeds or Ballantines (ph) got their hands on the diary and Baudelaire-ized it, but there was but portions are cut out and inked out, unreadable.
And they, one would suppose were the most indiscrete. Except some of the portions that remain, I think are plenty indiscrete. I have no idea what the standard of judgment was for obliterating the passages that were obliterated.
LAMB: Did you read it all?
GRANT: Yes. It wasn’t that long, but unendingly fascinating.
GRANT: If you’re a biographer of Thomas B. Reed.
LAMB: So, as you tried to get to know him. How did you do that? Where did you go? Did you
GRANT: Well, there’s he has a collection his papers are collected at Bowdoin. And the professors there have chosen to pursue other interests. They have been untouched lo these many years since his death.
LAMB: Untouched since his death.
GRANT: Well, there’s one of my benefactors was a man named Gallagher, who set out to write a life of Reed, and who went through the papers, and who organized them, and who collected bits from the Congressional Record, and who went writing to historical archives. He did his work in the early 1960s.
So, I came across the remnants of Mr. Gallagher’s research. He never did write a book.
I hired some researchers. Again, this is part-time work for me, Brian. My day job is Wall Street.
It took a while, but never, ever a labor. This is it was a labor, but indeed a labor of love.
LAMB: And again, going back to why did you think this book would sell?
GRANT: I have no anticipation of anything resembling an economic return on this book.
LAMB: What about the publisher? Forget the money for a minute. What about the publisher? They just don’t
GRANT: Well, but, no. I think that Alice Mayhew, my sainted editor, I think she likes the book, and I think that she thinks that the world ought to know, as I do, about this fascinating chapter in American history, which, by the way, is wholly pertinent to today on many, many counts not least, given events in Wisconsin when the legislators walked off to deny the state, the governor a quorum in the state legislature.
These events of yesteryear are relevant politically and economically and, not least, financially.
LAMB: Well, maybe if we could ask it this way. If the let’s say the Paul Ryan budget that he just got passed by the House of Representatives, if your majority is in control and sticks together, today, you can get anything passed.
LAMB: Could you have done that back in Reed’s time?
GRANT: Absolutely not. Not until he put through the so-called Reed Rules in 1890.
LAMB: How would they stop that?
GRANT: Well, in the days let’s say Congress has convened. And one part of the majority party, let’s say the Republicans, have a majority of members in the House, but they have many fewer members in the House than are required to set the quorum, without which, under the Constitution, the House can do no substantive business.
So, the majority and the minority show up for work. And the gavel comes down, and let it begin. It begins. They take a roll call.
And somebody moves to introduce some legislation. The legislation is controversial. The minority party won’t have a part of it. And suddenly, there’s no quorum. They don’t respond to the subsequent roll call.
They sit there, does Congress, sit there for days on end until they reach some sort of compromise that will result not in that legislation, but in some legislation upon which they can agree.
So, you see, under the rules prevailing until Reed got the speakership, very little legislation was passed as a percentage of legislation presented for enactment.
In Reed’s Maine, when he was in the state legislature, pretty much all of the bills dropped into the hopper would at least be discussed. Much of it would be enacted.
He got to Washington and was shocked and dismayed and scandalized when he realized that perhaps 10, five, 10 percent of things that were put up for serious consideration got enacted. It was you know, so Reed was all for the progress of the 19th century. He had about the least amount of nostalgia for yesterday of any politician you’ve ever met.
Most politicians, you know, love history. That’s why they got into the law. They revere the American past. There’s an undercurrent in many politicians of a yearning for something of yesteryear.
With Reed, it was all about the future and the glorious present. He would dine with Alexander Graham Bell. He knew Thomas Edison.
He couldn’t believe what was happening before his eyes. The telephone, the prospects of he could see television. Having dined with Bell, he could see that coming.
He could see the glimmerings of the Internet. He could see instant communication. And he got to work in the House of Representatives and saw that it was stymied with rules that were enacted before any of the improvements that he saw come into his own life had been effected.
So, he wanted to bring the House up to the standards of the 19th century.
LAMB: A little amateur I figured out here where, you know, all the years that he was there, the 45th Congress was his first. And then he became speaker in the 51st Congress, so he had a lot of time to watch the House.
What did he do in those early years? What committees did he serve on?
GRANT: Judiciary Committee was one, and that’s where he made his early mark. There was a great hue and cry, of course, over the election of, the presidential election of 1876.
And, Brian, you’re going to prompt me on this with the index of the book at hand.
The election was run who was the guy who so, it was between a New York Democrat
LAMB: Sam Tilden.
Samuel Tilden and the Republican
LAMB: Rutherford B. Hayes.
Rutherford B. Hayes. Thank you.
It seemed for all the world on election day as if Tilden had won. This would have been a triumph for the Democratic Party that had been out of power and, indeed, out of it had been under the suspicion of treason since the Civil War, had the Democratic Party wholly marginalized.
And yet, Tilden seemingly had won this presidential election. He did win the popular vote. But as the hours dragged by on election night, it seemed as if the electoral vote was still up for grabs.
So, there ensued a great mobilization of political machination and money. ”Visiting statesmen,” as they were cynically called, got on trains and went south to the states that were still up for grabs, distributing money as the need seemed to arise, promises of political preferment, offices, the like a great stink.
Finally, Hayes wins through a compromise. The Democrats are promised certain things. And the aftermath, Hayes wins. And it stunk to high heaven.
So, what do we do about the stink? Well, we convene a congressional committee to investigate the election.
The Democrats were reluctant participants in this, because they just wanted it over. They had rolled over. They had said, fine, we’ll stand by the apparent verdict of the Electoral College.
But next time, watch out. That was the Democrats. But they still they had to investigate.
Reed was on this committee. He was a freshman on the Judiciary Committee that investigated this election. And he distinguished himself with his cross-examination of the witnesses and with the wit and with the steadfastness that he exhibited in the cause of the Republican candidate.
It was really a case of who had done the most thorough-going job of suborning the process. And the Republicans managed to persuade the world at least themselves the Democrats had out-lied and out-filched even them.
LAMB: How I know that he served in Congress with James Garfield, who ended up being president.
GRANT: Yes. They were great friends.
LAMB: Were they friends?
GRANT: Yes, they were.
LAMB: And you point out in your book that he was also a friend of Henry Cabot Lodge’s?
GRANT: Yes, he was. And he was a friend, he was the great hero of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt looked up to Reed as just a wonderful figure, a mentor.
Reed was, among other things, a very accomplished writer. He had a professional author’s facility. He wrote for the North American Review and for all the brainiac journals of the day.
Roosevelt was a professional author, as you know. And Roosevelt admired Reed’s style. He admired Reed’s political skills.
LAMB: As long as we’re talking about people, he was a friend of Mark Twain’s?
GRANT: He was. That was much later in life. After his congressional career, Reed went to Wall Street to practice law with a firm that’s still extant, very much so, Simpson and Thacher. At the time it was Reed, Simpson, Thatcher and Bartlett.
Reed became the lead partner on Wall Street, and he lived this great grandaise (ph) life in Wall Street. You know, he, as you said, a very financially successful guy. But he hobnobbed with the really interesting people in the City of New York, including Mark Twain. And Reed gave a very funny testimonial talk at Twain’s birthday party just a few months before Reed died.
LAMB: Reed was 63 when he died, I think.
GRANT: He died in, let’s say, 1902, December 7, 1902. So, yes.
LAMB: Served in Congress, again, from 1877 through 1899.
LAMB: Speaker three times.
GRANT: Three times.
LAMB: Three times.
As you were doing your research on him, when did you start to really like him? And why haven’t there been more and how many books have been written? And why haven’t there been more?
GRANT: I’m afraid that my sales will bear testimony to this hypothesis. My hypothesis is that what people want to read are lives of people they know. So, there are n to the nth number of biographies of Washington a new and wholly worthy one by my friend, Ron Chernow of Lincoln, of Roosevelt. Conrad Black just came out with a great doorstop, a wonderful book on him (ph).
So, I think that commerce, the powers that be in commerce, line up behind the biographer who is taking up a known subject. And fortunately, I’ve got a pretty good day job, and I was able to do this for the sheer love and believe me, it was a deep-rooted and abiding love for this character.
But I so, you were kind enough to ask me about Reed. Most people are happy to go through their lives without knowing about even so estimable a historical figure as Reed. Think of all the people who have lived and died in the history of America. You can’t know them all. And one must pick and choose.
But to me, one would do worse by picking and choosing Reed.
LAMB: But when was it? You had the diary. And what else did you do to get yourself familiar before and when did you start writing in that four-year period?
GRANT: Oh, of course one procrastinates writing as long as possible, research being ever so much more an agreeable subject. Nothing like reading about a subject and planning the great work to come.
So, I suppose I spent the last two-and-a-half years writing, the last two years writing, the first year or so reading.
What also interested me about Reed was not merely Reed, although that was enough. Reed’s life and times the times were also intriguing.
My day job is largely has largely to do with our monetary affairs, meaning the nature of our currency, interest rates, the Federal Reserve, our financial markets. And Reed’s life, his last quarter of his life when he was active in politics, was a time of enormous turmoil and upset in these very topics.
So, today we talk about this kind of mysterious thing called quantitative easing, this phrase, which really means money printing. We are on a pure paper dollar standard. The Fed conjures dollar bills from its computers. Don’t even print them anymore.
To Reed, to the people of his age, that would have been an astonishing revelation. They debated the basis of the dollar. It should be either silver or gold. But in any case, it ought to be something.
The idea that the government itself should print money backed by nothing except the good intentions of the United States Treasury and the Congress was to them the heresy they reserved to the populace and to other renegades.
So, the renegades have actually become mainstream.
Now, if you advocate a gold standard, as I do, if one does that, one is pat on the head and regarded as either an antiquarian or a tea party eccentric.
So, you see, everything changes. All cycles come around. And those who are last shall be first, and vice versa.
LAMB: The last year this country was on the gold standard is what?
GRANT: Well, the last year there was a remnant of the full-body gold standard was 1971. August 15, 1971, Richard Nixon gets on the tube sorry, the television, I should be more respectful of this medium and interrupts Bonanza, of all audacious things, and says, henceforth, the dollar will be what we say it will be. No more gold. You may no longer use central banks. You wicked speculators (ph), you may no longer exchange your dollar bills $35 to the ounce. That’s over.
So, for the past 40 years, we have been on the pure paper standard.
LAMB: You mention that the Fed doesn’t even bother to print money anymore. How do they invent this money then?
GRANT: Well, they materialize it. There’s a guy in New York City sitting at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who where’s a we don’t have a computer keyboard. Otherwise (I) could demonstrate this technique.
You’ve heard of alchemy. This is a much more mundane form of alchemy. He goes click, click, click. And he credits to the accounts of the commercial banks doing business with the Fed, hundreds of billions of dollars at a sweep, at a moment in time, just like that. And these dollars are gathered up and electronically deposited in what is called the excess reserve bin of the Federal Reserve.
It sounds implausible, doesn’t it, Brian, but it happens.
LAMB: Who has to approve that, by the way?
GRANT: Well, the Federal Reserve does, the Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve approves of all this.
LAMB: As long as I’ve got such an expert here, I might as well tap into your reserve.
When will the interest rates go back up?
GRANT: My call is 2005.
Interest rates are I mean, nobody’s getting any younger. And I myself am having trouble seeing these interest rates I’m supposed to be observing. They’re so tiny, you can barely make them out.
You know, one of these a couple of weeks ago, I had one of the guys in my office call up the American the Association of AARP, whatever it is Association of Retired People, and ask, ”Tell me. Do you have a view on the no interest that your members are receiving on their hard-won savings balances? Do you have a point of view on this?”
And they said, ”Oh, we don’t have a point of view on the Federal Reserve.”
”No, no, no. Not on the Fed. Do you have a house line on whether it’s a good or a bad thing that your members earn zero on the money they have set aside for their retirement?”
They said, ”We’ll get back to you on this.”
And they got back and say, ”We haven’t heard much about it from our members.”
So, within the District of Columbia, one crosses the Fed, I guess at one’s peril. But I’m from New York, and I say it stinks. I say this is an affront to common sense, these interest rates and this monetary policy. And furthermore, it is an affront to equity, to plain justice.
LAMB: But based on what you know from past experience, when do these rates go back up?
GRANT: Well, these rates will go up when well, there’s no time. The trouble is, the precedent is only so helpful in financial matters. If form held, the historians would have all the money. And as it is, they have so little. So, every time is a little bit different.
Rates this time will go back up when the Fed is forced to reconsider its zero interest rate, money-printing policy. And it will be forced, probably, when inflation becomes not just evident to those who shop, but also undeniably manifest to those who look at the numbers.
As it is, the Fed insists, our government insists, that inflation is like 2.3 percent year-over-year.
Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Some of us think it’s higher. Those of us who shop probably think it’s a lot higher.
The Fed is not forced to act, because the world still thinks that it can accept dollar bills for our debts. We Americans are uniquely privileged in that we have what is called the reserve currency franchise. We print money at home. We pay for our goods that are imported.
We send you know, we send money west to Wal-Mart suppliers, and the Wal-Mart suppliers deposit the dollars in the central banks or the People’s Republic of China. The People’s Republic of China buys these dollars with newly created local currency, and they send the dollars back to us as investments in Treasuries.
And let’s talk about Reed. This is much too complicated.
But the substantive difficulty with our present-day monetary regime, and the way it differs from that in place in Reed’s time is, then, there was some tangible check on money. Now, there’s none.
LAMB: But I want to go back, after I did want to ask you about that but I want to go back to something that I’ll read this paragraph again and see how it compares with what’s going on in the country today. This is on page 272.
”The 36th Congress” and you’re talking about Holman here
the congressman from Indiana ”was Holman’s first, and it was the last before the war. It enacted 384 laws and appropriated $61 million.”
That’s for the country.
”The 44th Congress, which convened 10 years after the war, enacted 579 laws and appropriated $299 million. And only six months later, the 47th Congress, 1881 to 1883, managed to spend $529.3 million, an increase of $230 million in just six years over the outlays of the 44th.”
”’Surely,’ Holman went on, ’this enormous increase does not indicate the necessity of amending the rules to enable the speaker and the chairman of the committee more readily to reach the people’s money.’”
”Coming down to the last Congress, the 50th, 1889-1890, Democratic, 1,824 laws were enacted, appropriating for both sessions $543,632,004.95.”
GRANT: My favorite page in the book, because it crystallizes what Reed was up to. It crystallizes the significance of the forum he affected. It crystallizes the objections of the libertarian opposition in the Democrats.
And it shows the way that Reed’s Rules, this reform, this parliamentary this seemingly arcane parliamentary reform it shows how this brought into being this Leviathan, this great, enormous state that absorbs so much of the income and the wealth of this country.
What Holman was protesting was the apparent exponential rise in the money power of this government. If you read on in that speech, he got himself worked up, and he was talking about how the government is going to you can see it coming. He said, you can see the patterns in every empire ever existing on the face of the earth. They build grand buildings. They built zoological parks, a great navy, an empire an empire, he said.
And before long, the people who don’t trust the politicians who don’t trust the government erect this great structure of power with which to protect themselves from the people. And before long, you have an empire. And everyone at length is subject to arbitrary political power, and finally, as he almost said, is broke, because empires do go broke. They spend themselves into bankruptcy.
So, that was Holman in a rhetorically flamboyant response to this parliamentary gambit by which Reed was able to untooth, so to speak, his libertarian opposition.
So, when the Reed Rules when Reed effected this reform, when he could, in fact, introduce and run through legislation in the name of progress and modernity, he was setting the United States of America on the road to a much bigger government. And either you like that or you don’t. That’s a political judgment.
But Holman saw this coming, as Reed did not, exactly. Reed didn’t see where this was going to wind up, but Holman did.
LAMB: What was the ”disappearing quorum?”
GRANT: Disappearing quorum was when someone calls a roll call and the minority party simply doesn’t open its mouth to answer ”yea,” here.
LAMB: And they’re in the chamber?
GRANT: They’re in the chamber. They are corporally present, but vocally absent. And by simply saying nothing, they brought the business of the House of Representatives to a halt.
And so, you can see just how frustrating it would be to anyone who was elected to do business in Congress. They had come all this way it was no easy place to get to if you were from the Midwest, the far West they come all this way to sit there and read the newspaper.
LAMB: So, how did he stop the disappearing quorum?
GRANT: OK. So, one day, early 1890, Congress is in session, Reed is in the speaker’s chair. And there comes a controversy having to do with a contested election.
As you know, under the Constitution, the Congress itself is the judge of the suitability of its members. It decides, does Congress, the outcome of contested elections. And one of these was brought before the House.
The Republicans had the majority, if not enough to constitute a quorum. And the Democrats knew they would lose the contested election vote, if they allowed a quorum to form. So, come the roll call, they said nothing.
It was then Reed introduced the reform that reverberates to this day. He began counting names out loud. He said, ”Will the clerk please take down the names of the members who are present?”
And he began the roll call. And with this, the place erupted in the most incredible fireworks. It was a sight.
LAMB: So, what how did he stop it? I mean
GRANT: Well, he kept on reading. And there ensued some very dramatic moments, and some very funny ones. Someone gets up and, you know, his face flushed with rage, sputtering ”Tyranny,” quoting from the parliamentary handbook that Reed himself had used, that seemingly sided with those who said this was out of order and was an act of tyranny and high-handedness.
Reed says to this fellow, well, so-and-so is present. Does the gentleman deny it?
And so, the Republicans break up in sarcastic laughter, and the Democrats howl again.
So, this goes on for three days. And finally
LAMB: And Reed is the speaker.
GRANT: Reed is the speaker. Reed is the speaker through it all.
And at one point, there was a guy sitting in the back. He’s a Texas Democrat. His name was Martin, ”Howdy” Martin. And he had been through the Civil War from the start. He raised a cavalry outfit in Texas, and he had fought through all the way to Appomattox. And he knew something about violence.
And he carried a bowie knife on him, there being no metal detectors. And what Howdy Martin wanted was someone to tell him, to give the order that now is the time to rush the speaker’s chair and to lift this fat Republican out of it, and get down to the real business. All he wanted was the word.
And somebody went down to Reed and said, you know, ”Crazy Martin, crazy Howdy has it in for you. You’d better watch him.”
And Reed, imperturbable, didn’t care, he didn’t flinch. His family records that when Reed went home after one of these three night and days of just brutality directed against him, rhetorical brutality, he just he laid down in a cold sweat and shuddered.
But the Democrats would have been astonished to hear that, because he seemingly he was unflappable, to look at him. He just the way he fought back was by showing no emotion. And the Democrats finally had to admit, this was some demonstration of sang-froid.
LAMB: So, the disappearing quorum went away.
GRANT: It did, because, you know, he had the majority of votes, and he told them that they were here. And they finally could do nothing about it, and the 51st Congress got down to business.
And, you know, the Democrats’, Bill Holman’s worst nightmares were presently realized. They began legislating in earnest.
And by the time it was all over, the 51st Congress came to be known as the billion-dollar Congress, because that’s in two sessions, or in two years that’s what it appropriated. And someone said not Reed, but someone, Reed certainly approved of this quip somebody said, ”Billion-dollar Congress.”
And the wit said in response, ”Well, you know, it’s a billion-dollar country.”
LAMB: At the time, Benjamin Harrison was the president, from Indiana.
LAMB: And then, he was a Republican, but Holman was a Democrat from Indiana. Did they have any relationship?
GRANT: I don’t know. I can’t imagine it was cordial. Harrison, in any case, was known as ”the iceberg.” And I think cordiality was not his strong suit with anyone.
And I dare say it would not have been with this professed Jeffersonian named Holman.
LAMB: And the 51st Congress was 1889 to 1891.
You mentioned family, Thomas Reed’s family. There’s a picture of his wife in your book. What was she like?
GRANT: We don’t know exactly. The only thing we know about her was that she was against women’s suffrage. Reed was for it.
He thought that it was absurd that the overbearing male sex, in which was reposed not all the wisdom of the world, that this sex should have the monopoly of political power. He thought it was, on its face, it was also this, too, was an affront to the progressive ideas of the 19th century. And he set about, in his way, to change things.
He introduced, when he was on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote a minority report concerning the desirability of suffrage. He was embarrassed to death of being a man by the way, these men would patronize the women who came to Washington to plead their case. It infuriated him.
So, he would go home at night and engage his wife in these discussions. And in this great book you’re holding in your lap, Brian, there is, I think, a very funny account of Reed’s reading to his wife the speech he was going to make on the subject.
And she this is in a he wrote in a letter to one of his great friends, a man named Gifford, who was a great bosom buddy in whom he confided so much. He wrote to Gifford to say, and my wife curled up on the sofa in a ball and just a and with a body language expressing the deepest, deepest embarrassment at what her husband was about to inflict on her, because, you know, she would have to answer to her friends about this incredible, eccentric view he had about women voting.
She couldn’t bear it.
LAMB: Where was he on race?
GRANT: He was one of the leading these terms seem so patronizing when used in 21st century America. I was going to say he was a liberal. Or we would deem him a progressive.
In any case, he was for the Declaration of Independence. That’s the way to put it. He was for the Declaration of Independence.
He believed in its literal truth, which went to such things as black people not being pulled off of railroad cars when they got to Georgia to conform with the bigotry of the state laws of Georgia, and being seated in a special car for colored people.
So, Reed was at his mordent, dark, humorous best when confronting these subjects in Congress. He gave wonderful, cutting speeches against those who would put these terrible things over and who wanted to enact Jim Crow in federal statute law.
He didn’t always succeed. He rarely succeeded. But he stood up for what I think was the right.
LAMB: Said earlier that there had been 53 speakers, and he’s the 13th in length of time.
GRANT: I didn’t know that till I sat down with you, Brian, but I’m prepared to accept it as revealed truth.
LAMB: He was there four years and 172 days. Interestingly enough, the ones that are on top are familiar names to this era. Sam Rayburn is the longest serving at 17. Tip O’Neill, straight 10 years, the longest consecutive. John McCormack from Massachusetts was nine. Denny Hastert was eight.
GRANT: Joe Cannon was a great friend of, a colleague of Reed’s. And there’s a Cannon Office Building. There’s not a Reed Office Building. There’s a Cannon Office Building.
LAMB: And he served about five-plus years, Joe Cannon did.
LAMB: But if you go back, you know, we were talking earlier that he served as speaker three times. Other names when he ran for speaker, who ran against him?
GRANT: Cannon ran. McKinley ran.
LAMB: William McKinley.
GRANT: William McKinley, ”Mac,” who was Reed’s he was kind of his ”frienemy,” to use a contemporary phrase, word. He was McKinley was everything that Reed was not.
LAMB: They were both Republicans.
GRANT: Yes. But McKinley was museless. He had you know, he was bland. Someone once said a monsignor once said he should have been a priest. He listened so well and so sympathetically.
He was everybody’s friend. He had his ear to the ground constantly.
And, you know, once McKinley got into money trouble. He had distractedly or absent-mindedly signed a bunch of notes, co-signed a bunch of notes, for an entrepreneur friend of his. This guy was starting up a factory in Ohio to manufacture tin plate. And McKinley was asked to sign a note, you know, guaranteeing the creditworthiness of this guy.
And McKinley did it. And then the guy came to him and said, you know, ”I lost that one. Would you mind signing another?”
”Oh, yes, certainly. For you, sure.”
And a third time, ”Would you sign this note? I seem to have misplaced it.”
So, McKinley managed to co-signing many, many dollars’ worth of notes in excess of his own net worth. This came to light when McKinley was very much in the public eye and was a national politician.
And he thought, ”This is the end of me,” said McKinley. ”This is the end of me. I can’t even manage my own penny ante affairs. How will people entrust me with the nation’s?”
But people rallied to him. His old war buddies sent him five bucks, sent him 50. ”Here, you lent me this at Antietam. Here’s the two bucks you lent me.”
And so, people just loved him.
Now, Reed was admired. People so admired him for his intellect and the force of, the power of his arguments. They feared his wit.
Not many loved him. And Reed himself got into money troubles. He entrusted his brokerage account to a childhood friend of his in Portland. And the guy commingled his funds with the firm’s, and he basically bankrupted Reed almost, not quite bankrupted him.
Reed was not forgiving of this guy, as McKinley had been forgiving of the fellow who had done him dirt. So, you know, Reed did not have that same McKinley-like, winning, popular personality. But still, Reed defeated McKinley for the speakership.
LAMB: And he, in effect, eliminated the filibuster that was in the House at that time.
GRANT: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.
LAMB: In what year did he do that?
GRANT: 1890, in his first term as speaker, in the 51st Congress. Early
LAMB: How did he eliminate the filibuster?
GRANT: I’m sorry?
LAMB: How did he eliminate it?
GRANT: Well, I’m lumping filibuster with the disappearing
LAMB: The disappearing quorum?
LAMB: And that changed the whole House.
GRANT: It changed it from that day to this.
LAMB: In the end, and when he left in 1899, what were the circumstances? Did he want to run again?
GRANT: He was through with politics. He could have stayed. He could have been speaker. But the McKinley government was waging this war, had waged this war of choice with Spain.
Reed despised war. He saw he had not one ounce of martial vainglory in him. He saw nothing glorious about war.
He referred to Decoration Day we now call it Memorial Day as the day of the dead soldiers. He would not pal around with the Grand Army of the Republic, which was the veterans’ organization of the time.
He wanted no part of it. He wasn’t a passivist, but he saw through the pretenses, martial pretenses of war. He saw its essential effects on human life.
So, along comes this irreversible tide. People the nation went nuts over the glory of the certain defeat of Spain. The nation just loved it.
John Philip Sousa had written the ”Stars and Stripes,” and strains of that wonderful march echoed through the parlors, out you know, people played it on their pianos off sheet music. And people walked down the street hearing this irresistible music. And that was kind of the spirit of the time.
Reed it was lost on him. He wanted no part of it. He couldn’t resist it, he wouldn’t be a part of it. Therefore, he left.
And the reason he gave for leaving was that he believed he said, ”Tell them that I believe in the Declaration of Independence.” That was his line.
Because he was a thorough-going partisan. He would never say a word against the Republican Party, which he loved. He would never say a word, out of loyalty, against the McKinley administration.
But he would not do this thing, as he said. He would not do it.
LAMB: Our guest’s daytime job is GRANT’S Interest Rate Observer. Real cheap, $1,000 a year. You can find it.
And his nighttime and morning and weekend job is writing books. The book is called ”Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster.”
Thank you for joining us.
GRANT: A real pleasure, Brian. Thank you.