US Senate History: Boies Penrose


Senator; b. Phila., Nov. 1, 1860; Educ. A.B., Harvard, 1881; Admitted to the bar, 1883; mem. Pa. Ho. of Rep., 1884-6, Senate, 1887-97 (pres. pro tem., 1889, 1891); U. S. senator, 4 terms, 1897-1921; Chmn. Rep. State Com., 1903-5; mem. Rep. Nat. Com. since 1904. . . .


THE most striking victim of the American propensity for exaggeration is the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, Boies Penrose. He has a personality and contour that lend themselves to caricature. Only a few deft strokes are needed to make his ponderous figure and heavy jowl the counterpart of a typical boss, an institution for which the American people have a pardonable affection in these days of political quackery. For, when the worst is said of the imposing array of bosses from Tweed down to the present time, they could be forgiven much because they were what they were. That is why, perhaps, the altogether fanciful picture of Penrose, propped on his pillows with his telephone at his bedside directing the embattled delegates at Chicago, who in sheer desperation turned to Warren G. Harding, is dwelt upon fondly by a deluded public.

Penrose does not despise the appurtenances of bossism. If the truth were told he probably likes the idea of being represented as the hard-fisted master of party destinies. He knows that such a reputation inspires awe if not respect, on the part of the rank and file, from the humble precinct worker to the gentleman of large affairs who provides the necessary campaign funds. It has its value, sentimental as well as practical, for the American people likes to set up its own political idols. The politicians who for the moment guide the destinies of the nation are so misdrawn, so illuminated with virtues and endowed with vices quite foreign to them, that they frequently achieve a personality quite fictitious, but which, none the less, passes current in the popular mind as genuine.

Nothing could be more grotesque, for example, than the picture of Senator Smoot, who is merely a sublimated messenger boy, as one of the arbiters of the Republican policies; or of Senator Lodge, by sheer strength of leadership, restraining the discordant Republican elements in the Senate from kicking over the traces. This is journalist "copy" written for a popular imagination which finds the truth too tepid.

Boies Penrose serves the purpose of appeasing national appetite for what the magazine editors call "dynamic stuff."

But the real Boies Penrose is not all as he is pictured. At a cursory glance he might appear to be a physiological, psychological, and political anachronism. At least he is sufficiently different from his colleagues to be, if not actually mysterious, not easily understandable. There is something fundamental about him. He inspires a certain awe which may not be magnetic but has the same effect upon those who surround him; where he sits is the head of the table.

I doubt if Lodge or Knox or Hughes could ever fathom the secret of his power; they are not cast in the same mould. His colleagues smile at his idiosyncracies--behind his back--but they approach him with the respect due to a master. Many of them admire him, not a few hate him, but all of them fear him. It is rather a singular thing that Senator La Follette, himself at the pinnacle of his championship of the Wisconsin progressive idea, was probably on friendlier terms with the senior Senator from Pennsylvania than any of the other leaders of those reactionary forces with whom he was tilting. He knew where Penrose stood and it is not at all improbable that behind the Penrose reticence there was a modicum of admiration for the methods of the redoubtable little colleague, who in his way, was a more inexorable boss than Penrose himself ever dreamed of being. The mutual understanding was there, even if it never became articulate.

Penrose has peculiarities which put him in a niche quite his own. He eschews conversation as an idle affectation. He dislikes to shake hands, preferring the Chinese fashion of holding his on his own expansive paunch. When he finds it necessary to talk at all he speaks the precise truth as he sees it without consideration for the feelings of those he happens to be addressing. The results are frequently so ludicrous, particularly when he enters a colloquy on the Senate floor, that he is given credit for a much more pronounced sense of humor than he actually possesses. I doubt that he is always conscious of the element of humor and I suspect that if he realized that his observations were to evoke laughter he would deliberately choose a less satirical or flippant method of expression.

This temperamental characteristic was illustrated by an episode in the Senate chamber not long ago. Penrose, entering, found his chair occupied by a Democratic colleague who had over-estimated his capacity for the doubtful stuff that is purveyed in these days of Volsteadism and whose condition was apparent to everyone on the floor and in the galleries. Penrose is, perhaps, the most widely known personage in the Senate. His towering figure makes him conspicuous. But the most of the myriads of trippers who visit the Capitol do not know one senator from another. They rely for identification upon little charts showing the arrangements of the seats on the floor each one of which is labeled with a senator's name.

Now Penrose, might or might not have suspected that these trippers following their charts, would pick out the snoring recumbent figure as his own. He decided to remove all possibility of error and addressing the chair with usual solemnity said, "Mr. President, I desire the chair to record the fact that the seat of the senior Senator from Pennsylvania has not been occupied by himself at the present session. It is occupied by another." The galleries roared; the somnolent Senator shambled over to his own side of the aisle and Senator Penrose was given credit, by the unwise, for humor quite unintended.

Life with Mr. Penrose is a much more serious business than most people imagine. And it became even more serious a little while ago when illness laid hold of him and his brother, a physician, prescribed dietary rules restricting the freedom that he had once exercised without restraint. There was something lion-like in the gaunt figure in the rolling chair which he occupied when he returned to the Senate from his sick bed. It was amazing that he recovered; it was even more amazing that he should have submitted to the rigorous rules laid down by his doctor, even if that doctor was his own brother. The bated breath with which Pennsylvania politicians awaited bulletins from his bedside was a striking acknowledgment of the power he wields.

The evolution of Boies Penrose is an amusing commentary upon American politics in more ways than one. Three years after he was graduated from Harvard College he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature on a reform ticket. His election was made the occasion for great rejoicing on the part of the good people of Philadelphia. And well might they rejoice. They had at last driven a wedge into the sinister political machine that had brought the city of brotherly love into disrepute as a boss-ridden municipality.

Their young leader had wealth, which has its advantages, and social position, which to a Philadelphian is as dear as life itself. Moreover he had ability and all that makes for success. His fame as a reform leader spread throughout the land and across the seas. James Bryce, in his first edition of his American Commonwealth cited him as an example of the sterling type of young Americans who were arousing themselves at that time to rescue the municipal and state governments from the grip of the vicious boss system.

In the subsequent editions of the American Commonwealth you will find no reference to Mr. Penrose. Something had happened to him and to the reform movement. Whether he was struck by a bolt from the heavens or a bolt from Matthew Stanley Quay is immaterial. The fact is that after a few years' residence in Harrisburg, the seat of the government of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he counseled with himself and solemnly decided that Providence had never selected him to be the apostle of the political millenium.

Most men are born radicals and die conservatives. The development is gradual and represents the result of years of experience. But Penrose repented while there was time to make amends for his error. He sought a very short cut. He went directly from the legislature to the Republican organization of Philadelphia and stood as its candidate for mayor. But his late friends, the reformers, happened to be in the ascendancy that year and he was defeated.

The story told of him at that time, whether true or not, that he announced his willingness to take as his bride any estimable young lady the organization might select, since the fact that he was a bachelor was given by his henchmen as the reason of his defeat, is typical of him. The "organization," the Republican Party, constitutes his political creed and philosophy. He has devoted his life to it. The "party" is his life, his religion, his family, his hobby. Down in his soul he believes that the destiny of the American people is so inextricably interwoven with its fortunes that its destruction would be nothing less than national hari kari.

He does not believe that the Republican Party is perfect, but he believes that it is as perfect as any political organization is ever likely to be. He has no illusions concerning the men it chooses for high places. He is never disturbed by stories of political corruption or graft unless they are serious enough to jeopardize forthcoming elections. Otherwise they are merely unpleasant incidents that arise in the life of every business organization.

If he were supreme he would not tolerate political corruption, any more than he would tolerate murder; but since he is not supreme and cannot dictate to all men, he accepts their efforts in the interest of the organization even though their hands may be slightly soiled. Like the wise general who raises a volunteer army he is not meticulous in the choice of his privates, providing they are capable of performing the tasks assigned to them. No seeker after souls ever believed the end justifies the means more sincerely than Boies Penrose believes his vote-seekers are justified in stretching the code a bit for the benefit of the organization--particularly if it is actually endangered.

Just as he believes in the Republican Party he believes in a high tariff--the higher the better. Prosperity without protection is inconceivable. During a Washington career of more than twenty years he has been constantly caricatured as the tool of the interests--the man upon whom they could rely to raise the tariff wall an inch or two for their personal benefit.

He has raised it whenever he has had the opportunity to do so, but not for the reason assigned. He is no man's tool. The suggestion that Boies Penrose personally has ever profited financially through politics is too absurd to be entertained for a moment. Of course, he expects the interests, whom the party serves with tariff protection, to save the party at the polls and they usually do so. But that in the opinion of the senior Senator from Pennsylvania is the essence of sound politics.

Unbelievable as it may sound in these days, Senator Penrose actually thinks that most men are dependent for their daily bread upon the success of a very small group of financiers, magnates, or whatever you care to call the great leaders of the world of business.

Years of experience has convinced him that the human race is composed, for the most part, of hopelessly improvident people and that a great part of the globe would be depopulated through starvation and disease if it were not for the foresight, ability, and thrift of the handful of leaders whom Divine Providence has provided. He looks upon himself as one of the instruments of Providence and he sincerely believes that the policies which he has supported since his early experience with the reformers are responsible for the happiness and prosperity of many a family. He would consider it the height of absurdity for any of these poor, worthy, but ignorant people to expect the comforts which they have enjoyed without the protection afforded their employers by the Republican Party.

By this somewhat unpopular method of reasoning, he believes that he of all the men in public life has made the most persistent and consistent fight for the masses. It is undoubtedly this calm faith and sincere belief in his own rectitude which has enabled him to hold the tremendous power he has exerted since Nelson Aldrich retired from the Senate.

I have presented his political philosophy in some detail because he is probably the most misjudged man in Washington. People are inclined to look upon him as a glorified boss who deals in politics as other men deal in commodities;--it is hardly a fair estimate of the man. He considers himself the chosen leader of the most intelligent people of a great commonwealth who is rendering tremendous service to the country. I do not agree with that estimate either. But taken all and all it seems to me that the country owes him a debt of gratitude for having been sincere when another course would have been more profitable. It is a relief to find one at least who has never been called a hypocrite.

Senator Penrose does not hate Democrats; he does not consider them important enough for that; he merely despises them. They are to his mind an inferior class of human beings who should not be entrusted with the affairs of the nation. Reformers irritate him. They are either self-seeking hypocrites or deluded. In neither case has he the time nor inclination to listen to their suggestions or heed their maledictions.

He had an abiding hatred for Theodore Roosevelt when he was in the White House, but he supported him loyally so long as he was the leader of the Party. When Colonel Roosevelt bolted the hatred ran the last gamut. He was classed as an arch criminal for having smashed the organization.

Penrose is an enigma to those who know him only casually, especially those who view life through the rose glasses of culture. They marvel at the extent to which he has been able to dictate to men who appear to be his superiors. I have heard him called a cave man by some, by others a boor; but he is neither. He observes the amenities of life so far as they are necessary, but only so far. He is impatient of mediocrity; he will not tolerate stupidity and he loathes hypocrisy. I would not say that he has bad manners; he has none at all.

Throughout the recent eclipse of the Republican Party, which began with the Roosevelt default, no member remained more steadfast than the Pennsylvania leader. He accepted the inevitable and bided his time like the politicians of the old school of which he is one of the few conspicuous surviving examples. Expediency does not enter into his make-up; he made no effort to keep himself in the limelight, for he is by the Party, of the Party, and for the Party.

Now that the Party is back again, in power, more than one of his colleagues suspect that Penrose, if his health permits, will emerge from the background as the real leader of the Senate majority. His political past is against him. But he knows men and his tutelage under Aldrich has not been forgotten.


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