On March 6, 1941, Alabama Representative Luther Patrick gave advice to new Members from the House Floor. His 32-point list detailed the dos and don’ts of congressional behavior. If only he took his own advice.
Patrick’s speech, given in his characteristic drawl, mixed actual advice with humor. “Avoid being too original,” his first point stated. But right from the start, Patrick’s experience was unique. During a run-off for the Democratic primary in 1936, Patrick stopped into a downtown Birmingham café for buttermilk and a slice of pie. When he bumped into his opponent, incumbent George Huddleston, words were exchanged, fingers were pointed, and Huddleston knocked him over the head with a ketchup bottle. Ketchup reportedly ran down Patrick’s collar, up Huddleston’s sleeve, and ruined Patrick’s new straw hat. In a novel turn of phrase, Patrick noted that ships are christened with champagne, tugboats are christened with beer, and he was congressionally christened with a ketchup bottle.
Patrick warned that most Members overwork themselves to the detriment of their health. He urged new Members instead “to learn to take it fairly easy from the jump.” However, in June 1941, Patrick made quite a display of work. Members of the American Peace Mobilization had been protesting the war for weeks outside the White House. The Congressman responded by picketing the picketers. He marched in front of them, a sign fastened to his leg challenging, “You know how to picket, but do you know how to work?” To best illustrate the concept of work, he peeled Irish potatoes, which he drew from a tin pail swinging on his arm. A Treasury employee passing by thought that Patrick was impoverished and sympathetically dropped a coin into his bucket. Patrick allegedly purchased more potatoes with the quarter, prolonging his performance of hard work.
Because new Members are also new public figures, the Congressman sagely advised, they should be aware of their appearance at all times. “Learn never to relax and let your features droop or permit this sort of expression to get on your face,” he said, “for some alert news photographer will, for the first time you have been photographed, probably shoot you from behind a sofa, a cookstove, or paw-paw bush, and that stupid woe-begone face will henceforth be yours all over the Nation, as well as back home.” To illustrate what faces not to make, Patrick posed for press photographers in a goofy stance. Additionally, the previous year, photographers snapped him attempting to devour a massive slice of watermelon in one bite.
“When they beat a Congressman it usually involves something that he said,” Patrick explained, so try not “to say too much.” The Representative ignored his own advice in a radio broadcast during the 1942 primary. Before coming to Congress, Patrick had been a broadcaster on WBRC Birmingham, which left him comfortable—perhaps too comfortable—with the medium. During a show on WWDC, Patrick joked: “Ladies and gentlemen, we passed some kind of an appropriation bill up there a while ago. I voted for it. You know how it is with Congressmen, we vote a bill out today, and then buy a paper tomorrow to see what it was.” Patrick initially “thought it was a pretty clever joke, but it did not sound so funny” to his constituents and his opponent, John Newsome. “When I heard that played back to me a dozen times down in my district over the radio, at home where the voters listened, I did not think it was a bit clever.” But after losing his primary, in a speech entitled “A Lame Duck’s Report to Congress,” Patrick explained with regret, “he did not hit me with anything except what I provided him with.”
Giving advice is a good idea, but taking it is even better.
Download a PDF of Luther Patrick's advice to new Members from the Congressional Record.
Sources: Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (March 6, 1941); Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (June 8, 1942); Washington Post, May 27, 1936 and May 19, 1937; Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1936; Boston Globe, December 6, 1936; New York Times, June 7, 1941; and Chicago Daily Tribune, June 9, 1942.Follow @USHouseHistory