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First "Veep" Makes List of KY's Greatest Statesmen

By Todd Hatton


Murray, KY – When Alben Barkley became Vice-president in 1948, he'd been in Washington for 36 years, 22 in the U-S Senate and 10 years as Democratic majority leader.

It was the time of the Great War, the Great Depression and the Second World War, and Barkley played a crucial role in the country's transition into modern times, working to shepherd Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal through a divided congress. So, if you pay a bill from a TVA-supplied power company with money from your Social Security check, you can thank Alben Barkley.

Barkley's 1877 birth in a Graves County log cabin and early career as McCracken County Attorney and a county judge provided him with an insight into people that informed his politics. In 1953, Barkley spoke about his political philosophy in a Smithsonian Folksways Interview.

"In my 40 years of public life in Washington, I have advanced that theory over the opposition of a great many people who believe in just standing still; that Uncle Sam or the government oughta be hitched to a post, that government and politics itself oughta stand still. Well now, the people don't believe that, and I don't believe it," said Barkley.

Stephen Truitt, who's a Washington attorney, and grandson of Alben Barkley, elaborates.

"He thought that many problems, not all, but many, could only be solved at the federal level, particularly things like Social Security and flood control...which were already coming under attack by the time Truman took office. And he vigorously defended them then and would be defending them today!" said Truitt.

Truitt says the 1st draft of the Social Security Act was written in the mid-1930s on Barkley's front porch . He also chaired joint committees investigating Pearl Harbor & the Nazi concentration camps in the mid 40s. Becoming Vice President didn't slow him down.

"He was presiding on the senate, he was very actively involved in negotiating with the parties. That would be a legislative role; there was nothing that prevented earlier vice presidents from doing that. He just seemed to do more of it," said Truitt.

While that was a significant change in the office of the Vice-President, it wasn't new to "The Veep." Barkley changed the office to suit his strengths, using his oratory and good will to advance proposals from the Truman Administration to outlaw the poll tax, make lynching a federal crime, and establish national health insurance. And he did so with Harry Truman's encouragement.

"He was certainly the first vice president that routinely attended National Security Council meetings. And part of this was his own personality and the other part of it was Truman liked him and trusted him, and wanted him to do these things. He met with the president all the time, and was very important in his advice-giving to him," said Truitt.

Barkley was also a skilled storyteller. That ability allowed him to navigate rough political waters and, in one case, get F-D-R to laugh so hard Secret Service agents rushed in to check on the President's safety. Another story has the west Kentuckian so impressed with a preacher's Sunday sermon that Barkley got a little carried away in his praise.

"And he said, That was a damn good sermon you preached today.' Well,' the minister said, I like your compliment but I don't like your language.' Yes,' the stranger said, that was such a damn good sermon that I dropped $100 in the plate when it passed.' The preacher said, The hell you did!'," said Truitt.

In the end, Stephen Truitt says, his grandfather's most profound legacy was the New Deal. Truitt says the program went hand in hand with his grandfather's deeply-held belief that sometimes society needed a little bit of a boost from the government it created to reach its fullest potential.