Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

What’s in a Name? Origins of the Chowder & Marching Club

A Gathering of the Chowder & Marching Club (c. 1960s)/tiles/non-collection/1/12-3-text-chowder_marching_1_michel_papers.xml Image courtesy of the Robert H. Michel Papers A gathering of Chowder and Marching Club members (c. 1960s). Members donned the distinctive chefs’ hats and aprons for celebratory gatherings, though the costumes were the most formal aspect of the informal, loosely organized group. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan is at the center of the picture in the second row; to his right is fellow club co-founder Richard M. Nixon of California.
In an institution where legislative victories are often stitched together with shifting blocs, coalitions, and alliances, it isn’t surprising that most Members of Congress are joiners. For new Representatives particularly, membership in caucuses and other informal clubs and groups fills a yearning to belong, to swap legislative strategies freely, to learn the chamber’s folkways and norms, and, sometimes, simply to socialize.

After World War II, a cadre of Republican up-and-comers in the House formed a group that embodied these impulses to join and make a mark: the Chowder and Marching Club (C&M). “All of us were young, all of us were new members of Congress. All of us were veterans of World War II,” Richard Nixon of California, a charter member, explained years later. “We were concerned about the strength of the United States and we were concerned about how we could help secure peace.”

C&M coalesced in 1949 out of opposition to a veterans’ pension bill pushed by the autocratic chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, John Rankin of Mississippi, during the 81st Congress (1949–1951). Rankin wanted to cut generous $90 monthly checks to First and Second World War veterans older than 65; the first-year cost was $2 billion and thereafter soared higher. Opponents like Glenn Davis of Wisconsin, a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Don Jackson of California, questioned the need and price tag. Both former U.S. servicemen organized 13 other Republican colleagues (indeed, most were young veterans)—in Jackson’s words—to “get some fellows together to see what their attitudes are, and what might be done about this legislation.” Jackson hosted the first gathering in his office on a Wednesday afternoon at 5 p.m., after the conclusion of legislative business. C&M eventually helped to defeat the Rankin bill (by a single vote) and a longstanding tradition was started.

Each Congress thereafter, C&M extended an invitation to several initiates from the ranks of promising House newcomers, with an eye toward broad geographical representation and a smattering of seats across the spectrum of House committees. It remained all-male for four decades; women were admitted as their numbers climbed in Congress in the 1990s.

A Future President Plays the Piano/tiles/non-collection/1/12-3-text-chowder_marching_2_michel_papers.xml Image courtesy of the Robert H. Michel Papers In February 1965, former California Representative (and future President) Richard M. Nixon plays piano as a chorus of House colleagues and fellow Chowder and Marching Club members serenade Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford to celebrate his election as House Republican Leader. From left: Illinois Representatives Robert Michel, Charlotte Reid, and Les Arends; Ford; and Mel Laird of Wisconsin.
But while its membership grew and demographics changed, the purpose of C&M—like other informal groups such as the Acorns, SOS, or the Wednesday Group—remained constant. Bob Michel of Illinois, who joined C&M in the 1950s and later became the longtime Republican Leader, explained the group was a conduit for legislative intelligence, networking, and mentorship. “Freshmen in the group who are unfamiliar with committee operations” received quick primers from experienced Members, Michel noted. However, information flowed two-ways. “At the same time,” he added, “senior members who are all tied up with committee work can find out what’s been happening on the floor” and take the pulse of the junior rank-and-file.

Observers sometimes pegged C&M as a “secretive” group, unlike the congressional “issues” caucuses that sprouted in the 1970s. But C&M seemed instead to trade on its unadorned informality. Meetings rotated among the offices of the various members each Wednesday that the House was in session, with the host providing refreshments. To celebrate C&M’s round-number anniversaries, members donned garish chef’s hats and striped aprons. Aside from such insignia, there was little structure: no bylaws or rules of procedure, no set agenda or dues, and no elected officers. Even the name was slapdash. Mel Laird of Wisconsin, who joined C&M during the 1950s, noted that Jackson coined it “whimsically,” placing it on the notice for the group’s second meeting. A scene from a 1933 Cary Grant movie—in which another founding member of C&M, John Lodge of Connecticut, played a part—may have inspired the name. But no one really knew for sure.

Whatever the name’s origins and significance, membership connoted the sweet smell of success. C&M’s founders became a Who’s Who of national Republican leaders: Nixon and Gerald R. Ford of Michigan served as Vice Presidents, then Presidents; Nixon named Laird his Secretary of Defense; Lodge held Connecticut’s governorship and then three appointments as a U.S. ambassador. Later members occupied key positions throughout government, including Speaker of the House. “Information is power in Washington,” Laird observed years later, “and C&M became a unique repository of political insight.”

Sources: Dale Van Atta, With Honor: Mel Laird in War, Peace, and Politics (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008): 31–33; Kevin B. Smith, The Iron Man: The Life and Times of Congressman Glenn R. Davis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994): 99–110; Thomas A. DeLong, John D. Lodge: A Life in Three Acts (Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University Press, 1999): 149–151; Irwin Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 92–95; Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1979; Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1973; Washington Post, March 21, 1969.