This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”
Historically, moderate Republicanism was most strongly associated with the East Coast and regions settled by New Englanders such as the upper Midwest, the Northwest, and California. There were many exceptions to this rule, however, and one of the most notable Congressional moderates in the ‘50s and ‘60s was Thomas B. Curtis, a Missourian who considered himself a “constructive conservative.”
Curtis came from a long line of Democrats, but turned against his ancestral party to fight bossism, like Kansas City’s Pendergast machine that produced Harry Truman. Elected to Congress in 1950, at a time when he was one of only a handful of GOP officials in Missouri, Curtis followed a process of studying and deliberating issues individually, without reference to a pre-cast ideology or opinion polls. Typically this led him to take positions that were highly conservative on fiscal matters but moderate or liberal on social issues, which led to his being one of the few Republicans supported by the liberal political action group The National Committee for an Effective Congress.
Curtis campaigned for Taft in 1948 and 1952, but approved of Eisenhower’s restraint with regard to fiscal matters and the power of the executive branch. Curtis won his first election attacking Truman for his failure to seek adequate Congressional authorization for the Korean war, and later would make the same criticism of Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. He believed that Eisenhower’s military reputation gave him unique credibility to check the growth of what Ike called “the military-industrial complex.” Curtis (who served in the Navy during WWII) led the effort to reduce waste within the military bureaucracy, and helped end the services’ practice of running their own procurement agencies; the Navy, he discovered, was in the business of roasting its own coffee. At the same time, Curtis also attacked Eisenhower for failing to adhere to strict standards of good government by allowing his attorney general, Herbert Brownell, to retain patronage power.
Curtis was one of the prime movers in the “Young Turks” revolt against two successive Republican House minority leaders, Joe Martin and Charles Halleck. At issue was the gross imbalance in Democratic to Republican Congressional staff workers – researchers, writers, counsels, and clerks. While this was partly a matter of the GOP leaders’ failure to stand up against majority Democratic bullying, it also pointed to the party’s underdeveloped research and policy-making capacities, which limited Republicans’ ability to advance original and positive proposals rather than simply dragging their feet in response to Democratic initiatives.
Curtis faced repeated primary challenges from the right for his support of free trade (much resented by protectionist industries such as Monsanto in St. Louis) and civil liberties (against the likes of Joe McCarthy). What particularly raised anger against him in the Jim Crow state of Missouri, however, was his unswerving advocacy of civil rights for African-Americans. Contrary to much later mythology, civil rights efforts in Congress during the 1950s and early ‘60s were led by Republican moderates like Curtis rather than better known Democratic liberals.
Washington Post reporter Meg Greenfield recalled that when she first arrived in the nation’s capital in the early ‘60s, she gradually discovered that in terms of the political forces at work opposing and defending segregation, “I seemed to have the lineup of players just about completely wrong.” With the Democratic Party heavily dependent on its autocratic Southern chairmen, even the northern liberal Democrats who were most vociferous in their denunciations of Jim Crow were mainly posturing. “At that moment,” Greenfield wrote, “the principal force truly committed to taking immediate action against the kinds of crude racial repression still officially in place seemed to be, of all things, a bunch of Republicans, many of them unknown.” Some were northeasterners with urban constituencies, but “the effort’s most tireless organizers and/or communicants were a few generally conservative midwestern House members, notably Tom Curtis of Missouri.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 originated in Curtis’ office in 1962, and it was mainly Republican pressure from Curtis and his fellow Republican Judiciary Committee member William McCulloch of Ohio that forced John F. Kennedy to make his first, hesitant message on civil rights in April 1963. Curtis’ defense of civil rights was rooted partly in the Lincoln tradition of the GOP, but more simply in the belief that civil rights were at the base of the American philosophy of government and Judeo-Christian morality and that their defense was “the most fundamental issue that confronts any government at any time,” as he wrote in 1952.
Curtis’ independence continued to distinguish him when he resigned as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1973, accusing the Nixon administration of “tampering” with the agency in an attempt to gain political control, and later when he quarreled with Congress over the autonomy of the Federal Election Commission, of which he was the founding chairman. In all of his government service, Curtis consciously attempted to live up to the standard set by Edmund Burke in his 1774 speech to the Electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Originally posted on February 1, 2009