Monday, January 30, 2012

U.S. Senator from Oklahoma

Sent to The Frederick Press Leader, January 30, 2012
Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, 1908 (Photo from Library of Congress)

Thomas Gore represented Oklahoma
One of the most important and interesting figures in early Oklahoma was Thomas Gore.
Born in Mississippi in 1870, Gore came to Lawton, Oklahoma Territory, in 1901 when the area was opened to settlement through land lottery on August 6, 1901.
He had earned a law degree prior to his arrival in Oklahoma, and he was a practicing lawyer with a keen interest in politics. Two things, though, that set him apart from other early Territorial leaders were his powerful abilities as an orator and his blindness. Gore had been blinded as a boy, but never let his lack of eyesight stand in the way of his goals or accomplishments.
His wife Nina, who he had married in Texas in 1900, was said to serve as his eyes.
In 1903 Gore was elected to the Oklahoma Territorial Council, the Territory’s governing body. He served as a member of the pre-statehood council until 1905.
When Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907, Thomas Gore ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. He was elected and served as one of the new state’s first two U.S. Senators.
U.S. Senate, 1907-1921
Gore was a Populist Democrat, representing the interests of the common man against many big business interests. He supported the causes of farmers and Native Americans, and fought railroad monopolies.
He won re-election to his Senate post in 1908 and again in 1914. He was a good friend and trusted political ally of Woodrow Wilson who became President in 1913. He served on the Democratic National Committee from 1912 to 1916, helping Wilson with a sweeping reorganization of the party. He turned down the offer of a presidential cabinet position in the Wilson Administration to keep his U.S. Senate seat from Oklahoma.
Gore almost always voted in support of President Wilson’s New Freedom agenda, which included establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, and women’s suffrage.
In the spring of 1913 Gore was appointed as chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, a position that he cherished. He also served on the Senate Finance Committee, the Committee on Railroads, the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Commission to Investigate and Study Rural Credits and Agricultural Cooperative Organizations in European Countries. That study led to legislation that established a system of privately controlled land banks that would operate under federal charter.

Gore was the first blind man to serve in the U.S. Senate. Members of the opposition party tried to trick him into signing legislation that was against his own interests, but he often tricked them in return. Because he was shrewd, a powerful orator, and he represented the western state of Oklahoma, the news media often referred to Gore as “The Blind Cowboy”. 

As the nation moved toward involvement in World War I, Gore’s close friendship and working relationship with President Wilson ended. Gore was an isolationist and opposed American involvement in the war. As such, he opposed almost all of the Wilson Administration’s war legislation.

He also spoke against the Selective Service Act of 1917, legislation that created the “draft” or conscription of men to serve in the war. This first “draft” was in place from 1917 until 1920, giving the President the right to conscript men for the war effort. 

Gore’s anti-war position was not popular in Oklahoma and he was defeated for re-election in 1920. 
After he lost his Senate seat, Gore practiced law in Washington, D.C. In 1930, though, he ran again for the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma. This time he tied his campaign to the “Cheese and Crackers” campaign of populist Governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, and he was re-elected to the Senate.
Sen. Thomas Gore, 1929 (photo, Library of Congress)
U.S. Senate, 1931-1937
Back in the U.S. Senate during the Great Depression, Gore campaigned for Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and he was an early supporter of FDR’s sweeping “New Deal” legislation.

That soon changed, though, when Gore feuded with the President and chose to oppose most of Roosevelt’s popular New Deal policies, including the Works Progress Administration that funded public works jobs and projects during the Depression. His reason? He opposed the use of tax dollars to create jobs. He wrote to the WPA’s supporters that “The dole spoils the soul.” His was the lone Democrat vote against funding the WPA. 

FDR’s New Deal programs were enormously popular in Depression-era Oklahoma. When Gore opposed the New Deal, Oklahoma newspaper editorials attacked him and citizens booed him at campaign rallies.

In 1936 Gore was defeated in the Oklahoma Democratic primary, losing his party’s nomination to Congressman Joshua B. Lee who succeeded him in the Senate. 

Gore left the Senate in January 1937, and practiced law in Washington, D.C. until his death in 1949. He is buried at Fairlawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City.

Thomas Gore was an interesting character. He loved the state of Oklahoma and he worked to represent the interests of many common Oklahomans. He was staunch in his beliefs, though, even when those beliefs were not popular with voters or his political peers. 

Gore Boulevard in Lawton is named for Thomas Gore.

Senator Gore was the grandfather of the famous intellectual pundit and author Gore Vidal.
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Joe Wynn is a member of the Tillman County Historical Society’s board of directors.

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