Congressional Lions: Charles Curtis
As I discuss in Congressional Lions, my book-in-progress, Charles Curtis was the first person of significant Native American ancestry to serve in the United States Congress. When he died in 1936, the New York Times described him as “one-fourth Indian, though his swarthy skin and flashing black eyes made him appear fully half Indian.” The famous Progressive newspaperman William Allen White first met Curtis on the eve of the Kansan’s congressional career. White recalled the “young prince” as “a handsome fellow, five feet ten, straight as his Kaw Indian grandfather must have been, with an olive skin that looked like old ivory, a silky, flowing, handlebar mustache, dark shoe-button eyes, beady, and in those days always gay, a mop of crow’s wing hair, a gentle ingratiating voice, and what a smile!”
Curtis was born in Topeka, Kansas Territory, on January 25, 1860, a year before Kansas became a state. Although other representatives claimed a measure of Native American ancestry before Curtis’ time, he was Native American by virtue of his mother, who was Kaw, Osage, and French. After his father went off to fight in the Civil War and his mother died, Curtis lived on Native American reservation land for part of his childhood.
He was the proverbial self-made man. No obstacle, regardless of how daunting, would dissuade him from his desire to advance. Unable to afford a prestigious university education, the young man worked as a janitor in a law firm so that he could study in the firm’s library. Desperate to make something of his life, he studied under the tutelage of a Topeka attorney, A. H. Chase, and eventually passed the bar exam. He was admitted to the Kansas bar at the age of 21 in 1881.
Later, he joined the Republican Party and pursued a career in real estate development. His grandmother Curtis has been awarded land under terms of the Kansas land cessation treaty of 1825, and she left it to her grandson. The young attorney parlayed his inheritance into a profitable business, later boasting of his business acumen. Within a few years, he was well-positioned to enter politics.
He also enjoyed a successful family life, marrying a young lady, Anna E. Baird, on Thanksgiving Day 1884. The couple eventually had three children, Harry, Permelia, and Leona. They remained as husband and wife for almost four decades, until she died on June 29, 1924, while Curtis served as a United States senator.
First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1892, he served for seven terms until he ran successfully for the U.S. Senate. For all of his political skill, Curtis was not known as an original or innovative leader during his service in the House. According to one commentator, “He did not maintain such popularity by demonstrating a talent for profound thinking.” Instead, he relied on a natural ability to provide constituent services and his convivial nature to see him through. He gained a reputation as a “fixer and a whisperer,” not as the sponsor of major legislation.
William Allen White marveled at Curtis’s flexibility as a politician. “Issues never bothered him,” White observed. “I felt that he was a wonder with his winning ways. I never saw a man who could go into a hostile audience, smile, shake hands, and talk before and after the meeting so plausibly that what he said on his feet was completely eclipsed as a human being.”
More than anything, his Native American heritage attracted attention in Congress. When the powerful speaker of the House, Thomas B. Reed, learned of Curtis’s lineage, he referred to the Oklahoma congressman as an “Indian.” It became his claim to fame. One popular tale recounted an occasion when Curtis arrived at the speaker’s office unannounced and happened upon a group of congressmen assembled to discuss the merits of promoting the gold standard. Curtis was hardly an expert on currency, but Speaker Reed waved him into the meeting, nonetheless. When the discussants failed to reach an agreement, Reed reputedly turned to ask what “the Indian” would recommend. Curtis suggested that the issue be referred to a select committee for further deliberation. Reed eventually accepted the advice, appointing his Native American colleague to the select committee. Thus, Curtis became one of the few congressmen who shaped the influential Gold Standard Act of 1900.
Anxious to advance his political career, beginning in 1903 Curtis angled for a United States Senate seat. At the time, state legislatures elected senators, a deeply partisan process that brought out the worst in everyone involved. Curtis was no exception. He threw himself into the muck of state politics, eventually emerging as one of several leading Republican candidates. Unfortunately for his prospects, he controlled enough votes to stave off another contender, but not enough to secure his own election. He eventually agreed to a compromise whereby his nearest competitor, Congressman Chester Long, would accept the Republican nomination and Curtis would be in line for the next vacancy.
Curtis’s opportunity arose far sooner than he or anyone had anticipated. The following year, a grand jury indicted Kansas Senator Joseph R. Burton for representing clients for a fee before the Post Office, a violation of federal law. After he was convicted and faced expulsion from the Senate, Burton resigned on June 4, 1906. Governor Edward W. Hoch appointed Alfred W. Benson to occupy the chair until a special election could be held. Despite the bargain that Curtis would be next in line, the Senate seat attracted more than a few opponents scrambling to capture the prize. When the politicking was done, however, Curtis emerged victorious on the fifth ballot. He took his seat in January 1907.
During his first term in the Senate, Curtis chaired the Committee on Indian Depredations, and even served as president pro tempore for a week in 1911. He lost his reelection bid in 1912 when the Progressive wing of the Republican Party split, reflecting the tension between presidential incumbent William H. Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, who opted to create a third party, the Bull Moose Progressive Party. Curtis might have returned to Kansas and thrown himself into the practice of law, but he had developed a taste for politics and was not ready to cede the ground to his political enemies.
In 1914, Kansas held an election for the other United States Senate seat, and Curtis could not resist the clarion call of public service. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution called for direct election of senators, which changed the dynamics of the race. Recognizing a general antipathy toward Democrats, Curtis capitalized on his long-standing Republican roots to challenge Democratic Congressman George A. Neeley. When the votes were tabulated, Curtis had defeated Neeley 180,823 to 176,929, while the progressive candidate, Victor Murdock, garnered 116,755 votes. Curtis remained firmly ensconced in the seat thereafter. He eventually serving as Senate majority leader.
In 1928, Curtis threw his hat into the ring as a presidential candidate, but he possessed neither the name recognition nor the resources to succeed. The New York Times described Curtis’s campaign as “quieter than gumshoes,” while a columnist found the Kansan to be the “apotheosis of mediocrity.” Needless to say, he lost the nomination fight.
As a runner-up for the top position, Curtis was a natural choice for the vice presidential nomination after Herbert Hoover captured the prize. Curtis would balance Hoover’s urban appeal because he was a farm-state representative. Swallowing his pride—he and Hoover were not on good terms, and they had traded barbs during the nomination battle—Curtis accepted a position on the ticket serving beneath the man whom he had so recently characterized as beneath him. The irony was lost on no one. As a good party man, he fell in line and campaigned zealously throughout the fall.
The Republican Hoover-Curtis ticket handily defeated the Democrats, Alfred E. Smith of New York and Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, in the general election on November 6, 1928. The Republicans received 21,392,190 popular votes (444 electoral votes, and 40 states) to the Democrats’ 15,016,443 popular votes (87 electoral votes, 8 states). Charley Curtis had come a long way from his humble origins on a Kaw reservation.
Yet even as he enjoyed his electoral victory, Curtis realized that all was not well for his political career. He learned that a new vice president enjoys very little political authority apart from what the president deigns to award him. Curtis might have served his chief well as a legislative liaison, for he had spent decades cultivating relationships on both sides of the aisle in Congress. If President Hoover had appointed his running mate the administration’s chief legislative negotiator, the results could have been impressive. Regrettably, the pair could not overcome their mutual animosity from the campaign. They were partners in name only. During the four years that Hoover served in the executive mansion, he all but ignored his vice president.
For his part, Curtis allowed his status to go to his head. He had been viewed as a reasonably humble man during his years as a legislator, but his personality changed as he slipped into the vice presidency. Perhaps he sought to compensate for his lack of genuine power inside the Hoover administration by pompously touting his prestige as vice president. Sixty-nine years old when he was sworn into office, he apparently decided that he should be treated with the deference and respect naturally afforded an elder statesman. Whatever his reasons, Curtis soon became a much-mocked symbol of political impotence combined with insufferable arrogance.
Perhaps the most scathing portrayal of Curtis as a powerless vice president appeared in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Of Thee I Sing,” which opened on Broadway in 1931 and ran for 441 performances. The jaunty musical production, with a score by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, satirized Washington politics. In one memorable scene, the hapless vice president, Alexander Throttlebottom, seeks to enter the White House. Unfortunately for him, he is so obscure that no one recognizes him and thus, he is denied entry. His only means of entering the mansion is to latch onto a public tour. Without revealing his identity, Throttlebottom discusses the incumbent vice president with his tour guide.
Guide: Well, how did he come to be Vice President?
Throttlebottom: Well, they put a lot of names in a hat, and he lost.
Guide: What does he do all the time?
Throttlebottom: Well, he sits in the park and feeds the peanuts to the pigeons and the squirrels, and then he takes walks, and goes to the movies. Last week, he tried to join the library, but he needed two references, so he couldn’t get in.
Audiences loved the spoof because they recognized the absurd Throttlebottom figure as a thinly-veiled version of silly old Charley Curtis.
"Throttlebottom" served out the balance of his term as an increasingly marginalized figure. Despite calls to dump Curtis from the ticket in the 1932 election, President Hoover kept his second-in-command in place. It made no difference. The Republicans lost badly to the Democrats that year. In the general election, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Texas Congressman John Nance Garner, who also served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, defeated Hoover and Curtis by 22,821,857 popular votes (472 electoral votes, 42 states) to 15,761,845 popular votes (59 electoral votes, six states). It was seen as a humiliating rebuke of the Hoover administration. Curtis had held out hope for a come-from-behind victory until the final election returns disabused him of that notion.
With his career in electoral politics over, Curtis thought about returning to Kansas and assuming the mantle of an elder statesman, freely advising up-and-comers on the difficult task of navigating the treacherous shoals of elective office. In the end, he chose another route, establishing a legal practice in Washington, D.C. Members of the old guard as well as friends and well-wishers occasionally congregated in his office to reminissce about the old days and plot strategy for ensuring Republican success in upcoming elections, but mostly he faded from view.
On February 8, 1936, a maid arrived to find the 76-year-old politician dead in the home of his sister, Dolly Gann. A heart attack was listed as the cause of death. Returned to his native Kansas for burial, Curtis became a mythic figure. Thousands of mourners turned out to say their goodbyes and honor his 47 years of public service. They extolled the supposed virtues of a poor-boy-made-good who had traveled far from his modest Native American roots. Supports lionized “our Charley, God-sent into politics.” Images of the inept Throttlebottom were momentarily forgotten in the rush to praise the dead hero.
In the years since his death, Charles Curtis has been mostly ignored. When he is remembered at all, he usually is described as a weak vice president who served in a failed, one-term administration. His work behind the scenes as a pragmatic legislator of the smoke-filled-room variety is dismissed as unseemly, the sort of thing that makes the common man detest partisan politics. Yet for all of his many flaws, Charles Curtis was the first member of Congress with major Native American roots, ensuring that his life and legacy will never disappear completely.