Historic Quote: “If the results are the wish of the people, I can accept that. It’s like a game of bingo. I’ve neglected golfing and fishing. It’s time to make that up.” House Rules Committee Chair Ray Madden of Indiana, defeated in a primary at age 84 after 34 years. Of his many years, Madden said, “I haven’t sat by the road and counted them. Age doesn’t seem to creep up on me. I’m not sick, aching, lame or any of those things that plague older people.”
Once in a while, a House leadership election changes history. 1989 may have been a rare example, as Newt Gingrich defeated Ed Madigan by two votes. That election would propel Gingrich’s rise to the Speakership, but not the Presidency. Gerald Ford’s defeat of Charlie Halleck would do the opposite.
Ford’s defeat of Halleck for the position of House Minority Leader was most remarkable because Halleck was the incumbent. The Indiana Congressman had held that position for six years, encompassing three Congress’s. But that was Ford’s ammunition. The Goldwater debacle had reduced to GOP House conference to mere rubble — 140 seats of 435. It was one factor that would relegate the party to seemingly permanent minority status.
Ford had just won his ninth term as a congressman from Michigan.
Halleck was born in Jasper County, Indiana at the turn of the century, 1900 to Abraham Lincoln Halleck. His rise would be quick rise. A World War I vet, he would go to law school and by age 24, was Prosecuting Attorney for the thirteenth district court. He’d hold that position for ten years. He won his House seat in a 1935 special election following the death of incumbent Fed Landis, as Republicans were again licking their wounds from a national landslide and record low seats. He’d just barely hold off a Democratic challenger in ’36.
In those days, Halleck was a hard-core conservative, an isolationist who opposed the Lend Lease Act. But he did back the Marshall Plan and aid to Greece and Turkey.
Halleck became Chair of the Republican Conference Committee after just seven years in 1942, the same year his friend who would become a loyal Lieutenant, Leslie Arends of Illinois (the Sancho to Halleck’s),would become Whip. Arends had won his seat the previous fall in the regular cycle.
Halleck tasted national prominence as early as 1940 when he nominated fellow Hoosier Wendell Wilkie for President. “I got more brickbats and more bouquets over that speech than any other I’ve ever made.” when he put Indiana in Tom Dewey’s column at the national convention. Reliable sources told him that could mean the vice-presidency. But the nod went to Earl Warren instead “My trouble was, I believed what people told me.” And in 1952, Halleck was one of five men deemed to be “acceptable” by Eisenhower forces.
Ford’s challenge to Halleck was ironic because six years earlier, after the in 1958 elections, it was he who had convinced Halleck to challenge Joe Martin for the position of Minority Leader. Republicans had been decimated and while Eisenhower was still popular, Ford felt no one was in charge of promoting the GOP message. Furthermore, many Republicans believed Martin was too close to Speaker Sam Rayburn. So Halleck’s challenge was to “democratize” the House. Halleck agreed to make the challenge and, won a crucial caucus rule change that allowed secret ballots.
It was needed. The vote was 74-70.
Halleck may have been a prime reason the “New Frontier” was force to transform into the “Great Society”, as he colluded with southern Democrats to kill various social legislation (the minimum wage, etc). But Halleck would moderate, and the first sign of that was when he agreed to support a Civil Rights bill promoted by Kennedy. Some questioned his motives, to which he would say, “they couldn’t understand that once in awhile, a guy does something because it’s right.” One tape had Halleck saying to Johnson, “you know, if you scratch me pretty deep Mr. president,” before Johnson cut him off and said, “I don’t want to scratch you because I want to pat you.”
LBJ had been trying to get Halleck to agree to a vote on anti-poverty legislation before they adjourned for their convention. He said, “you ought not hold up my poverty bill. That’s a good bill and there’s no reason you ought to keep a majority from voting on it. If you can beat it, go on and beat it but go on and give me a fair shake.” Halleck ultimately had no choice but to acquiesce.
“Ev and Charlie Show” consisted of joint television appearances, and statements. He called himself “100 percent Republican,’ “snooping into our ice boxes,” (rationing was an issue).. Halleck said that Americans should “live again as God meant us to live and not as some bureaucrat in Washington … would like us to live.”
The “young Turks,” which primarily featured Mel Laird, Don Rumsfeld, Charlie Goodell, and Bob Griffin, asked Ford to challenge Charlie Hoeven of Iowa, the current Conference Chair. It apparently did not take Hoeven by surprise when he told reporters after a conference meeting that “something’s brewing in there.” Ford readily obliged and unseated Hoeven 86-78, after which the dethroned Iowan admonished Halleck to “watch out; he’s just taken my job and the next thing you’ll know, he’ll be after yours.”
That would indeed prove to be the case, but it might not have been obvious at first. Missouri Republican Congressman Tom Curtis said, ‘we have a saying in Missouri that when a mule is stubborn, you get his attention by hitting him across the head with a two-by-four.” Ford’s dethroning of Hoeven was the two-by-four.
But after the debacle of 1964, the “Young Turks” wanted more which meant that now, Halleck was a direct target. But for Ford, challenging Halleck would not come without careful weighing. As Ford cited in his memoir, A Time To Heal, Ford was about to assume the top Republican position on Appropriations, and also had the matter of his young family.
Meanwhile, Halleck would broach the subject to Ford at a leadership lunch in his office. He posed the question with the words, “now I assume everyone is going to run for the same office again.” Ford responded: “Charlie, I’m not going to make any commitments here. You know, there’s a group that’s talking about finding somebody else for your job. They haven’t selected a candidate but the possibility does exist that I might run.But he’d write in his book, that the deal was sealed when his son said, “go for it dad.”
Given the proximity of Indiana and Michigan, the battle for whip could easily have been one of friends and neighbors. Among the midwest, it was. Ford’s good friend Elwyn Cederberg put his name forward, while Halleck’s Indiana colleague, Ross Adair, would do the same. In launching his campaign, Ford said “citizens of all political faiths…are gravely concerned about the very survival of the two party system…I feel we must begin a new chapter with new ideas, a new spirit, and new leadership.”
Ford hadn’t planned to formally launch his campaign until after the New Years but he got an urgent phone call from Rumsfeld begging him to return to Washington. Prior to that, Ford believed a handy win was at hand. Ford vowed to “expand the effort to present positive alternatives,” and in clear outreach to the more junior members said, “we’re going to use everybody’s talents. Every Republican will be a first-team player, a 60-minute ball player.”
The first ballot was 72 for Ford and 69 for Halleck, with 1 present. The second was 73-67, at which time Halleck asked that the vote be made unanimous. The vote was a little closer than expected. Ford said he had expected John Lindsey to vote with him, but didn’t (likely taking a few other New Yorkers). But he credits Bob Dole for securing Kansas’ five members to putting him over.
Griffin, announcing the vote said, a new chapter in the Republican Party has begun.” He also credited Ford as the most “electable” candidate saying, “Jerry gets along with all segments of the party.” After the vote, Halleck said “that’s the way the ball bounces. I wish him well.” In his memoirs, Ford credited Halleck with being a gracious loser, saying he “displayed no personal animosity.”
The same, Ford wrote, could not have been said of Joe Martin who, upon his defeat by Halleck in 1959, “had sulked or weeks and refused to speak to Halleck).” And Ford was gracious back. He offered Halleck any committee assignment he desired. Halleck in turn would provide Ford key advice.
Halleck’s own electoral security was strong but hardly invincible, particularly in those bad Republican years that knocked so many of his colleagues out. In 1964, he finished 10,000 votes ahead of his rival, garnering 53%. In 1958, he was down to 52%. On average, his elections would finish between 57 and 63%.
After his loss to Ford, Halleck sought one more term in the House and won 56-44%. He chose not to seek re-election in 1968.”I knew my race had been run,” Halleck said of that loss of leadership. “The chance to be Speaker of the House would not come in my effective time.”
As he was leaving, a colleague said, “Charlie has had his hours of greatness, glory and triumph. Charlie has had his hours of disappointment. In both he has always been a gentleman.”
Halleck would return to Indiana and, with his law practice and “hunting and fishing,” generally live happily. But his wife’s death in a boating accident in 1973 left him despondent. Halleck died in Lafayette 1986. The federal building in that city bears his name.