The Board of Education
The small room tucked away on the first floor of the Capitol became famous in the 20th century as the “Board of Education,” where House leaders met to relax and share information and strategy. The space was part of the 1857 extension of the Capitol, and the Committee on Territories claimed it first, but Speakers of the House have used it since the turn of the 20th century.
A Room for Speakers
The Speaker of the House took over the future Board of Education in 1901. For many Speakers, it offered an escape from their public offices near the House Chamber. Tucked away on a narrow corridor, close to storage rooms and the barbershop, the little room had a relatively low profile. Speaker Henry Rainey liked to work there “unbothered by job hunters and self-appointed advice givers,” according to the newspapers. Speaker Jack Garner used it as a second home. Ettie—his wife, secretary, and close advisor—cooked his meals there on a stove especially installed for them.
Soon the room took on the name it is still known by today—the Board of Education. Party leaders met to drink, quiz selected House Members on political matters, and plot legislative strategy. In a different spot in the Capitol Speaker Nicholas Longworth pioneered the custom, and the name, of the convivial retreat, but it was Rayburn who most famously used it as a political tool. His ability to gather new and seasoned Representatives in the Board of Education, serving them bourbon while he gathered information and issued tactical marching orders, was the stuff of lore. Although Rayburn made the Board of Education legendary, he never referred to it that way, calling it simply “the little room” downstairs from the House Chamber.
Rayburn outfitted the room with shabby, comfortable furniture—old “Turkish” tufted chairs, a long leather couch, threadbare carpet, and a big desk that had drawers jammed with bottles of bourbon and Scotch. Rayburn had the Texas seal painted on the west wall of the room, and below it he placed two stanchions holding the U.S. flag and the Lone Star banner carried by the Texas Delegation at the 1932 Democratic National Convention. He also hung two portraits: his official Speaker’s portrait and a rendering of Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas.
The small circle of regulars who joined Rayburn to “strike a blow for liberty”—as Garner called their tumblers of liquor in the days of Prohibition—included longtime House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler, Representative Lyndon Johnson of Texas, and a few committee chairs. Senator, and later Vice President, Harry Truman was another frequent visitor. Truman was relaxing with Rayburn and friends when President Franklin Roosevelt died. The Capitol switchboard patched the White House’s urgent call to the Board of Education. Truman went pale, muttered “Jesus Christ and General Jackson,” and grabbed his hat as he rushed out the door to assume the presidency.