This post was written by Graduate Assistant Kristina Benham.
We at the W.R. Poage Legislative Library are reprocessing the papers of Congressman Bob Poage to enhance their organization and overall access. As a graduate assistant this summer, I have been assisting Processing Archivist Thomas DeShong with Poage’s campaign materials. For the bulk of my work on this project, I am bringing renewed organization to many folders that were generically labelled while maintaining as much of the original order as possible. Examining a collection of someone’s papers in an archive setting always feels like the combination of a mystery and a walk through someone else’s life. With Poage’s very personal style of political campaigning, reading his correspondence with constituents, colleagues, Democratic committees, and people from all over the country reveals rich details of his political life and friendships.
I would like to showcase a few of these fragments of Poage’s political life. But before I do, here are some basic facts on his national career and the collection. Poage served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1937 until his retirement in 1978, being particularly vocal for the agricultural concerns of his constituents as a member and chairman of the House Agricultural Committee. His campaign papers largely contain correspondence, especially during election years, but the topics involved range widely from agricultural concerns of Texans to foreign relations during World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Being campaign-related, correspondence often turns to the merits and faults of political party policies, including welfare, federal spending, the splitting of the Democratic Party over desegregation, and McCarthyism. On all these topics and more, Poage was unafraid to state his opinion, while maintaining respect with anyone who addressed him and humbly admitting when he had insufficient knowledge on a given topic. Folders in his campaign papers also contain records of campaign lists, election filing, advertising, and campaign fund accounts.
One of the things that strikes me most in Poage’s campaign papers is his frequent use of personal correspondence. Certainly, he used form letters, but he showed a special dedication to answering all correspondence, willingly discussing any topic of personal or national interest. Some constituents wrote asking for advice. In 1971, Poage replied with advice to the letter of Kathi Singletary, a high school senior from Cleveland, Texas seeking input on her upcoming opportunity to vote for the first time. Many correspondents wrote to express their political views. In response to a hand-written letter from Reverend Asa P. Hamrick of Pantoul, Illinois, Poage wrote two pages on the impending 1964 presidential election. Poage began the letter with, “I recognize that there are differences of opinion about the merits of the respective candidates. Of course, that is why we have elections, but I have not subscribed to the widely held philosophy that everybody with whom I disagree is a thief and a rascal.” Poage applied this same even-handed debate with his constituents on the fine details of agricultural concerns and national politics. In 1958, a resident of Goldthwaite, Texas sent a letter accusing Poage of playing at party politics when criticizing President Eisenhower’s veto of a price freeze on cattle. Poage’s response began, “It has always been my endeavor to respect the opinions of other people, and I certainly imply no criticism of your views. You have a right to feel any way you please and I am not going to accuse you of being a tool of special interests…because your views do not agree with mine. You may be right and I may be wrong. I think, however, it is quite clear that you have overlooked one rather simple and very important fact in regard to the present price of livestock.” Poage continued for three pages with details from his own ranching experience, his assessment of the rainfall and fields in multiple areas of Central Texas, his knowledge of agricultural pricing nation-wide, and his history of placing policy over party. His personal touch in correspondence may be captured most strikingly in his expression of discouragement to one correspondent in 1958 accusing him of not reading his letters. To counter this, Poage revealed that he came to the office more than an hour before his staff to personally attend to the letters of real content piled on his desk.
Poage generally took a congenial and collaborative approach to politics, but still maintained a firm stand on the issues that mattered to him. This generally won him appreciation. In 1952, many constituents passed along bad reports of Poage’s “lady opponent” during the 1952 Democratic primary. While Poage seemed undaunted by her active, door-to-door campaign, he responded to these reports with respect. He also tried to keep national interests and local representation in balance. Though he represented the agricultural economy of his constituents, he also responded to the concerns of outsiders on these issues. In 1958, activists from around the country sent him letters of thanks for his support of the Humane Slaughter Act, often adding contributions for the current campaign year. Poage, having no opponent, politely returned the contributions with thanks. In many letters to colleagues and constituents, he often encouraged cooperation with Republican members of Congress and the Eisenhower Administration, despite his strong dislike for their policies. In 1960, Poage participated in the Democratic National Convention in the nomination of a presidential candidate. Poage had long been a friend and supporter of Lyndon B. Johnson, and he backed his nomination at the convention. Despite his suggestion that the “Kennedy people” took the convention, he joined with Johnson in actively supporting the Kennedy/Johnson campaign, even defending the respect due Kennedy amidst controversy about his Catholic faith.
Sometimes Poage found a sharper political tone to be appropriate. In 1956, George Bell Timmerman, Jr., the Governor of South Carolina, sent a resolution of southern Democrats for a southern platform to Democratic members of Congress ahead of the Democratic National Convention. In a revolt against the Supreme Court decision in favor of desegregation, this solidarity of southern Democrats would later produce the “Southern Manifesto” in Congress, an attempt to overturn the court’s decision. Congressman Poage flatly refused both moves. In his response to Timmerman, he implemented his usual collaborative tone to keep northern and southern Democrats working together, but he also accused Timmerman of reviving the fractures that led to the American Civil War.
In the course of Poage’s support of Democratic campaigns and local events, he had a hand in bringing many important people to his constituents. In 1937, U.S. Postmaster General James Farley attended the dedication of the new Waco post office. In 1952, he corresponded with people organizing Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Central Texas, including Waco. For the presidential campaign of 1960, former President Truman and the families of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on separate visits to Waco. Lady Bird Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and Jean Kennedy Smith visited the area for a few days, hosting several events and promoting the Democratic ticket. In Poage’s own contested nomination in the Democratic primary of 1972, Speaker of the House Carl Albert spoke at an appreciation dinner for Poage in Waco.
For most of his time in Congress, Poage ran unopposed in the Democratic primary elections and always ran unopposed in the general elections. In 1971-72, though, he had to run a fierce campaign, because Texas Senator Murray Watson opposed him in the Democratic primary. Though by this point Poage’s national recognition and seniority in Congress outstripped his ability to maintain his characteristic personal style of correspondence, the 1972 election was filled with personal anecdotes from the many Central Texans who supported him. On his campaign tours of the region, city after city hosted appreciation dinners in his honor, Temple and Waco being the biggest events. After Poage’s victory in the primary, a flood of rejoicing and appreciation from his constituents and congratulations from around the country (and world) came in the mail. From a letter representing supporters in a Marlin, Texas’s black community to best wishes from the President of the Republic of Korea, Poage’s victory was a big event.