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Photo of Senator Wallace White of Maine
Wallace White (R-ME)

Wallace H. White
Powerless to his Party

Little noted in the realms of political science, even senators with a firm grasp of institutional history may have trouble recalling his name. During his prime years in the House of Representatives, however, Wallace White, Jr. influenced the course of radio broadcasting regulation and helped develop the American Merchant Marine. And in the Senate, White's colleagues considered him one of the kindest, gentlest, and most fair-minded individuals to grace the institution. Indeed, his congeniality elevated him to the positions of minority and majority leader. But there is a sad story behind his titular leadership of the Senate. As Senator Robert Taft's "front man," Wallace White had no real power over the Republican Conference, yet the stress of duty nearly destroyed the man who was both loved and exploited by the senators he served.

Born in 1877 in Livingston, Maine, White grew up under the guidance of his grandfather, William P. Frye, a long-serving member of both houses of Congress and the president pro tempore of the Senate. After graduating from Bowdoin College, White worked as a clerk to the Senate Commerce Committee, which his grandfather chaired, and later as a personal secretary to Frye in the PPT office. At the same time, White took law courses at Colombian College (now George Washington University), and in 1903 he moved back to Maine to practice law at his father's firm.

In 1916, White ran as a Republican for a seat in the House of Representatives. During the campaign, local newspapers touted White's connection to Frye, the premiere Maine statesman. "By inheritance, education, culture, initiative and personality," the Lewiston Journal proclaimed, "Mr. White is all that the voters . . . can ask." The newspaper made White's election seem all but inevitable. At thirty-eight, White would be entering the House at the same age as his illustrious grandfather.

White won the 1916 election as well as the next six consecutive terms to the House. Representing Maine's second district, he chaired the Committee on Women's Suffrage and the Committee on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries. In the latter position, he drafted legislation regarding U.S. shipping, broadcasting, fisheries and navigation, and he served as a U.S. delegate to numerous radio and telegraph conferences held around the world. Credited for subduing the "chaos" then reigning over American airwaves, White co-authored the Radio Act of 1927. He also drafted the "epochal" Merchant Marine Act of 1928 (the Jones-White Act), which mandated that ships accepting U.S. mail subsidies must educate young cadets in the "duties of seamanship."

In 1930, Maine Senator Arthur Gould retired, freeing a seat in the Senate. White easily won the race to replace him. A legislative craftsman, rather than a dynamic speaker, he pursued his interests in shipping and business expansion, topics popular with his Maine constituents. And as a member of the minority for much of this time, he made friends with Democratic senators, while he gained the respect of his Republican colleagues for his willingness to log long hours far from the eyes of the public and the press.

In the early 1940s, White served as the secretary of the Senate Republican Conference and as the assistant to Senator Charles McNary, the minority floor leader. When McNary fell ill with a brain tumor in 1943, White fulfilled the administrative duties of acting leader and chairman of the Conference. As a consequence of McNary's incapacitation, the Conference, under the direction of Senator Robert Taft, adopted a new set of rules governing its organization and officers. For the first time, the position of Republican floor leader would be separate from that of chairman of the Conference. Thus, when the Conference elected White to be minority floor leader in January 1945, White had little, if any, authority over the caucus and was, in fact, guided by the mandates of Senator Taft, then considered the ex officio leader of the Senate Republicans.

As minority leader between 1945 and 1947, White supervised the floor proceedings, reported to Taft, and worked closely with Democratic Majority Leader Alben Barkley, with whom he developed a warm relationship. White preferred to focus on domestic and international trade, however, and he was an active member of the Committees on Appropriations, Foreign Relations, and Interstate Commerce. Modest and soft spoken, he rarely made noteworthy speeches, but introduced dozens of bills without achieving the legislative success he enjoyed in the House.

In 1947, the Senate Republicans took back the majority in the chamber. White became the Interstate Commerce chairman, a position to which he was remarkably suited, given his expertise in business and communications. In response to Senator Taft's dictate, the Republican Conference also elected White to be majority leader, despite his lack of speaking skills and desire to assume the role's managerial duties. For Taft, however, White made the perfect figurehead leader. Frail at seventy, he had no intentions of taking over the Senate, and he was so warmly regarded, he was immune to Democratic attacks. With White out front, Taft quietly enforced his party's agenda without having to deal with the minor, yet time-consuming, administrative details relegated to official leaders.

White's sole term as majority leader has been largely unrecorded. No books describe his performance beyond prefacing the word, "leader," with such adjectives as "nominal," "self-effacing," and "unremarkable." Indeed, Taft did not allow White to either excel or fail in his circumscribed role. Tucked away in the Library of Congress' Manuscript Division, however, a scrapbook of local newspaper clippings broadens the picture: White was not a happily complacent senator, willing to accommodate the whims of Robert Taft. In actuality, he was desperate to leave behind the pressures of his unwanted position.

From the start of the 80th Congress in 1947, White's colleagues pushed him to cast aside the committee work that he loved. Senator Clyde Reed publicly criticized him for taking the helm of the Interstate Commerce Committee when he had so many leadership tasks to complete. Others senators, vying for his committee slot, insisted that he withdraw from Foreign Relations. Instead, White requested again and again to be freed from the leadership post, but Taft feared that a scramble to fill the position would split the party, and he instructed the Conference to refuse White's attempts at resignation.

In December 1947, White entered the Bethesda Naval Hospital with the diagnosis of "flu" and exhaustion. A few weeks later, the Livingston Journal describe White's ailment as a "nervous condition." After White had been hospitalized for nearly three months, the newspaper reported that he was actually recovering from a "nervous breakdown." Finally, on March 26, White returned to the Senate. Within days, he was back to his post as majority leader, but he no longer had the mental energy to keep up with the action on the floor. Senator Kenneth Wherry, who would become the Republican leader in 1949, assumed White's duties for the rest of his term.

In 1949, Wallace White retired to his home state of Maine. Weakened by a heart condition, he became confined to his bed in 1952. In his isolation, he received a letter from the current members of Interstate Commerce Committee. The senators told him that they had been reminiscing about their good friend Wallace, "the man, whose friendliness, charm, courtesy, and painstaking consideration in all things marked him as a true gentleman and a noble American patriot."  Deeply touched by his colleagues' sentiments, White died in his sleep a few weeks later. His wife reported that his last days were peaceful now that he could finally leave the worries of the Senate behind.


Historical information provided by the Senate Historical Office.

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