Sam Rayburn might well have been the greatest Texas politician of the 20th century. Greater than Lyndon Johnson, or John Connally, or Ma Ferguson, or Ralph Yarbrough, or Ann Richards.
They built a library in Rayburn’s beloved hometown of Bonham. It is simple. It also is elegant in its rural Texas sort of way.
Indeed, the structure was erected in 1957, while the man known as Mr. Sam was still alive. He died four years later, in 1961, but his reputation as an iconic political figure was fixed.
I had the pleasure of visiting the library the other day with my wife. We were so very impressed with a number of aspects of the library and museum.
The actual library contains two sections of bound volumes. One of them includes many of Rayburn’s personal books. A docent who took us through the exhibit told us that on every one of Mr. Sam’s personal books, he inscribed his initials on Page 99. I grabbed a book off the shelf, turned to Page 99 and sure enough, there was the “SR” scrawled on the bottom of the page. I didn’t bother to look at any other volume on the shelves. Hey, I figured that if the volume I chose at random had it, why bother to look at the rest of them?
Why pick Page 99? According to Kimberly Burpo, administrative assistant at the library, there’s a video of the speaker that explains that he just picked the number at random. There was no particular reason for it to be “99,” she said. “He just did and that was that,” Burpo said.
On the other side of the library – along the same wall – is a collection of the Congressional Record, which is the written documentation of every statement, vote, decision or discussion that occurs within the halls of Congress. The Congressional Record volumes contained in the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum date from 1774 to 1980.
A docent told us that the Rayburn Congressional Record exhibit is the second largest in the nation; the only larger collection is contained in the Library of Congress.
When you walk along the grounds of the 5-acre spread in the middle of the city, you well might be struck by the serenity you feel as you look the place over.
Sam Rayburn’s career as a member of Congress spanned the administrations of seven presidents, dating back to Woodrow Wilson, who walked away from the Oval Office for the final time in 1921. Rayburn said he never sought higher public office because he felt most at home and most needed working in the people’s House.
Rayburn personified an era when politicians could proclaim, as he once did, that public service and politics were among the most noble “avocations” one could pursue. He was proud of his many years as a member of the House, which included three tours of duty as speaker of the House. Indeed, he controlled the gavel at the time of his death in 1961.
Rayburn’s funeral in 1961 at First Baptist Church in Bonham was the place to be if you were an American politician. The library/museum displays an iconic picture of four men, all of whom either were former presidents, a future president and the current president at the time. They were Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy.
Sam Rayburn’s exhibit in Bonham reminded me of how politics used to be done in Washington. Politicians of differing political philosophies, differing parties reached across the aisle toward each other. A recording of Mr. Sam tells the listener how proud he was of his ability to craft bipartisan legislation, how he was able to put country ahead of party and how it worked for the benefit of the entire nation.
I don’t know about you, but I long for a return of that kind of political leader.
John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis' blog for KETR, "Piece of Mind," presents his views, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff, or its members.
Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.