Saturday, November 24, 2007

November 24, 1877:

Alben Barkley's Birthday

Alben William Barkley, Democratic politico from Kentucky and big wheel in the US Senate in the 1930s and '40s, won the vice presidency in 1948 on the same ticket with Harry Truman. At Barkley's inauguration on January 20, 1949, he was 71, thus becoming the oldest person ever to become vice president (the second-oldest was Charles Curtis, Coolidge's veep, who entered the office at age 69 in 1925).

Curtis wasn't ever actually called a "veep." Alben Barkley was, however -- he was the first vice president to be called that -- and the term stuck, even though Barkley's successor, Richard Nixon, didn't want it. "Alben W. Barkley, who served as vice president of the United States from 1949 to 1953, was popularly known as the 'Veep,' " wrote Mark O. Hatfield in Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993. "His young grandson had suggested this abbreviated alternative to the cumbersome 'Mr. Vice President.' When Barkley told the story at a press conference, the newspapers printed it, and the title stuck. Barkley's successor as vice president, Richard Nixon, declined to continue the nickname, saying that it had been bestowed on Barkley affectionately and belonged to him...

"A storyteller of great repute, Alben Barkley frequently poked fun at himself and his office. He was especially fond of telling about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea; the other became vice president; and neither was heard from again. In Barkley's case, the story was not at all true. He made sure that the public heard from him, and about him, as often as possible. And what the public heard, they liked, for Alben Barkley performed admirably as vice president of the United States.

"...Alben Barkley was a genial grandfatherly figure -- but with enough life left in him to court and marry a widow half his age and to captivate national attention with their May-December romance. In many ways, Barkley was the last of the old-time vice presidents, the last to preside regularly over the Senate, the last not to have an office in or near the White House, the last to identify more with the legislative than the executive branch. He was an old warhorse, the veteran of many political battles, the perpetual keynote speaker of his party who could rouse delegates from their lethargy to shout and cheer for the party's leaders and platform. His stump-speaker's lungs enabled him to bellow out a speech without need for a microphone. He was partisan to the marrow, but with a sense of humor and a gift of storytelling that defused partisan and personal animosities."

Today is also President Zachary Taylor's birthday, born in 1784, and as such the first president born after Americans won their independence on the battlefield, as acknowledged by the 1783 Treaty of Paris. See March 5 (his swearing in), July 9 (his death) and September 25 (the Battle of Monterrey).

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