Most Nebraskans have heard the name George Norris, but few understand the depth of his influence on our nation or the breadth of his character. He represented Nebraska for five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and five terms in the U.S. Senate from 1903 until 1943. In 1957, a panel of the best political historians in America named him one of the five most important U.S. Senators in history, and President John Kennedy chose him as one of his eight subjects in his landmark book Profiles in Courage. Just a young lawyer from McCook, he was one of the greatest forces for honor and integrity our nation has ever produced.
It may seem odd that a Nebraska Democrat would choose the most famous Republican in state history to profile and effusively praise, but George Norris cannot be reduced to simple partisan labels. He was great man who did as much for our Party as he did his own, and always adhered to the singular guiding principle of the people before politics.
While still a young Congressman, he led a landmark insurgency against the Speaker of his own Party, the unimaginably powerful, Joseph G. Cannon. In a vote of 191 to 156, he won a motion that forced the Speaker to make committee assignments based on seniority rather than personal patronage. He further bucked the Party Establishment by supporting Theodore Roosevelt for President – a man who would become one of the three most important Presidents of the Progressive Movement.
Throughout his career, Norris routinely championed the rights of labor and the independent farmer. He vehemently fought Presidents of both Parties to protect the interests of the little guy and was a constant thorn in the side of the bankers and brokers of Wall Street. He believed in complete transparency, the integrity of the people and their ability to make the right decisions concerning the welfare of the nation. He feared the excesses of capitalism and stood like a lighthouse in a storm to protect the people from their greed.
He was labeled a socialist and un-American, and was loudly condemned by members of his own party for blocking their attempt to privatize American electrical power. Twice he led Congress to pass legislation to federalize electrical power in the Tennessee Valley and provide rural areas with low cost access to electricity only to be blocked by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover of his own Party. Eventually, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, he made his dream a reality and created the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Act.
In 1932, he joined with New York City Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, to pass the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which prohibited employers from making a commitment to not joining a labor union as a condition of employment. Eliminating the “Yellow Dog Contracts” greatly limited the use of court injunctions in blocking strikes and pushed open the door to unionization everywhere.
Norris believed that partisanship was counterproductive to good government, and that the two-party system was antiquated and frequently moved in opposition to the best interests of the nation. To that end, he was instrumental in creating in Nebraska the nation's only non-partisan unicameral state government.
No longer being able to suffer the duplicity, Norris formally left the Republican Party in 1936 to become an Independent. He was offered Committee Chairmanships to become a Democrat but refused. Leaving one Party Establishment for another to him seemed contradictory. And, when President Roosevelt wanted to pack the Supreme Court with the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, Norris opposed it - championing the integrity of the court over the wishes of his old friend.
In 1942, even though the Democratic Party had no possibility of winning the Senate race in Nebraska, we spitefully withheld our support of Norris for his opposition to the Court packing plan, thereby, ending his four decades of service to Nebraska. He passed away in McCook in 1944.
As a Nebraskan, I am proud of the rich tradition of political courage and integrity that George Norris imprinted on our state. Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson are certainly testaments to his legacy. Because of his continuing dream for our future, I am optimistic we will soon overcome our present state of political turmoil and rise to a new day shaped by the honor in which he lived.
Photo courtesy Harris & Ewing – The World’s Work, 191.