Bookended by tragedy, Vera Buchanan’s brief tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives began in 1951 as an extension of her late husband’s legislative efforts representing blue–collar steel workers in southwest Pittsburgh. But by the time she stood for re–election 18 months later in the newly reapportioned, more center–city district, Buchanan demonstrated that she was not merely a caretaker of the office her husband once held, but a skilled politician in her own right.
Vera Daerr was born in Wilson, Pennsylvania, on July 20, 1902, daughter of John Daerr and Jennie Leasure Daerr.1 She grew up in the steel mill town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and attended local public and parochial schools. After high school, she worked as a secretary for a Duquesne steel company. In 1929, Vera Daerr married Frank Buchanan, an automobile dealer and teacher, and the couple raised twin daughters, Jane and Joan. In 1942, Vera Buchanan helped her husband win election as mayor of McKeesport, a post which he held for four years. Vera operated a beauty shop and was a member of the Democratic Women’s Guild. As the first lady of McKeesport, she conducted a listening campaign to familiarize herself with the needs of constituents and began cultivating a support base for future election campaigns. In May 1946, Frank won the special election to fill the vacancy left in the 79th Congress (1945–1947) by the resignation of Representative Samuel Weis. The Congressman was re–elected to the next three consecutive terms. Serving on the Banking and Currency Committee, Frank Buchanan became an expert in housing legislation and earned a reputation as a bright, candid, and liberal Member of the House. He chaired a select committee that brought to light extensive corporate and union lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.2 Vera Buchanan served as her husband’s secretary during his five–year tenure in Congress.
Vera Buchanan’s leap into elective politics came unexpectedly when Congressman Buchanan died suddenly on April 27, 1951, at the age of 48. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party chose his widow to run for the vacated seat; she accepted the invitation. “We were a very close–knit family,” Buchanan later explained. “Frank’s death was a great shock. I decided to run because I wanted to see the things he believed in carried on.”3 Part of Buchanan’s motivation was to clear her husband’s name after he had been attacked by a redbaiting columnist. Prior to his death, Frank Buchanan had developed a lengthy refutation which he was never able to deliver on the House Floor—and Vera Buchanan wanted to put it on the record herself.4
Critics suggested that Vera Buchanan was running as a contender based strictly on her husband’s name. The Pittsburgh Post–Gazette despaired that “Mrs. Buchanan’s foremost attribute was that she was the widow of Frank Buchanan.”5 Vera Buchanan dispelled any question of her legitimacy in a tough, quick–witted campaign that echoed her husband’s positions. “I’ll be proud to support a President—Harry S. Truman—who has labored and devoted the highest office in the land to restoring law and order in the world,” Buchanan told supporters days before the election. Her opponent, Republican Clifford W. Flegal, the McKeesport city controller, attacked Truman and Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson for being soft on communism and for the unpopular Korean War. When Flegal challenged Buchanan to a debate, she retorted: “The oldest saw in politics is ’Let’s debate.’ This is no time for hot air. It’s time for decision. If my opponent hasn’t made up his mind at this late date, it’s just too bad. My mind is made up.”6 In the July 24, 1951, special election, Buchanan defeated Flegal with nearly 62 percent of the vote and was sworn into Congress by House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas a week later, on August 1.7 Following the 1950 Census, Pennsylvania lost three congressional seats. In the redrawn district, which encompassed heavily unionized sections of Pittsburgh, her native McKeesport, and other steel–making communities, Buchanan proved an even more powerful incumbent. In 1952 and 1954, she defeated GOP opponents by 2–1 margins.8
In the House, Vera Buchanan served on three committees: Banking and Currency, Merchant Marine and Fisheries, and Public Works. In early 1952, she resigned her Merchant Marine and Fisheries post to concentrate on her remaining assignments.9 As had her husband, Congresswoman Buchanan employed her daughter, Jane, to serve as her secretary.
A solid supporter of most Truman administration policies, Buchanan became a critic of the Dwight Eisenhower administration’s efforts to roll back domestic welfare programs. Vera Buchanan, like her husband, took a special interest in housing legislation. In 1954, she criticized Eisenhower’s plan to halve the number of annual public housing projects over a four–year period. Noting that federal housing in McKeesport and Pittsburgh had been a success, she urged the Republican majority in the House to restore the figure to 75,000 per year, where it had been under President Truman. “An American family…should have a chance to live in decent housing,” Buchanan said in a floor speech. “Housing is one of the most important factors in a child’s environment. We have ample evidence that juvenile delinquency flourishes out of all proportion in slum areas, and out of juvenile delinquency grows vicious adult crime.”10 She attacked efforts to remove price controls on grocery commodities and rental units, noting that the “cost of living is nearing an all–time high, but the legislation to deal with the problem is nearing an all–time low.”11 For these and other of her legislative forays, Buchanan earned a reputation as a trusted ally among her district’s union members and other laborers. Buchanan also pushed for the study of the flood problems plaguing her district, insisting on federal funding for the Turtle Creek Valley Flood Control Project, after a series of floods devastated local housing and industry.12
Congresswoman Buchanan demonstrated an independence from parochial interests. She supported the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project, and her appointment to the Public Works Committee in 1952 led to open speculation that the long–stalled piece of legislation would begin moving through the House.13 Initially, opinion in her district had been against its development, but it became more evenly split after the discovery of the large Labrador iron ore deposits in Canada (iron was a critical raw material for steel production). Buchanan’s reasoning was simple and extended beyond the narrow focus of her district. She argued that since the seaway would be built either jointly with Canada or without any U.S. involvement, that it was in the “national self–interest and the self–interest of every industry and business in the United States [to] require that our Government have a full, equal voice in the construction and operation of so important a waterway—a full and equal voice on every aspect of the operation.”14 The House eventually approved U.S. participation in the St. Lawrence project in 1956.
When President Eisenhower took office in 1953, Buchanan raised concerns about the bellicose rhetoric of his new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Dulles was then developing his concept of “massive retaliation,” which threatened Soviet leaders in the Kremlin with instant nuclear annihilation for any military provocations— whether conventional or nuclear—at any point around the globe.15 While suspicious of Moscow’s designs, Buchanan nevertheless expressed concern that Washington officials were relying too much on the threat of nuclear deterrence. “But are we doing enough, trying hard enough to restore sanity and peace—real peace—to the world?” she said in a floor speech. “Have we tried every possible avenue of approach? Have we left anything undone which could possibly—even as a long chance—mean enduring peace and the end of the constant danger of atomic incineration of mankind?”16
In June of 1955, during her third term in Congress, Buchanan became ill. A condition initially diagnosed as bronchial pneumonia turned out to be terminal late–stage cancer. Despite the diagnosis, Buchanan tried to carry on her congressional work from her hospital bed—first at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and, later, for the final three months of her life, in a hospital in McKeesport. During her final days, House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts visited Buchanan. When he rose to leave, Buchanan said, “Good–bye, my friend.” The Speaker replied, “I won‘t say ‘good–bye,’ just ‘so long.’ I’ll see you up in the Gallery.”17 Buchanan passed away on November 26, 1955, becoming the first woman Member to die in office. “I learned to know Vera Buchanan as I had known Frank Buchanan, loyal, hard–working, intelligent, and considerate,” eulogized Representative Abraham Multer of New York. “I can think of no greater tribute…they had a keen sense of devotion to the services of the people of this country—not only their district but of the country.”18
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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