When the speaker of the House discovered that he suffered from cancer, and left to die quietly in his Texas, the men who write out of Washington knew that a strong and solid influence on the city's character had suddenly slipped away. And after days of wondering and speculating, most of them decided that it was the simplicity of the man that had been so important in his 18 years as Speaker, and that now was lost. He was old-fashioned; he was plain; he was direct.
Yet what made Sam Rayburn so remarkable was probably not these qualities, but his ability to combine them with a profound awareness of what power was and how to use it. His contribution to the job of running the tremendously awkward machinery of a fragmented and stubborn House was actually a very new one, for he introduced to the Speakership an entirely different politics of control. His great predecessors-men like Cannon and "Czar" Reed-were largely parliamentary tyrants. Rayburn was more, because he was shrewd enough to realize that stamping on all Congressmen is nowhere near so effective as encouraging the talents of good ones, and muting the efforts of bad ones.
His style seemed old-fashioned because he did; it had not the bounce and flair of the men whose legislation he had somehow to pass-Franklin Roosevelt, or the present White House staff. But his genius, a novel sort of gift, lay in absorbing unfamiliar legislation and presenting it to the House as something not radical, but necessary, not dangerous, but sound, not suspiciously complex, but homespun and simple as himself.
That was Sam Rayburn's accomplishment, and not even the memory of the sharp, benign figure who presided at party conventions will be missed so much. His successor will most likely be John McCormack, who will soon experience the overwhelming loneliness of the speaker, who must, often sympathizing neither with the President nor with his chamber, act to reconcile them both. Rayburn sat in that isolated chair for 18 years, trying at once to legislate and to preserve his integrity and humanity; and he was successful.