“Politics is a sore to any government. It is one of the greatest hindrances that exists to good government. Any man must be condemned when he puts his party ahead of his country. Partisanship, if carried to the extreme, will ruin everything.”
That’s not from yesterday’s cable news talk shows. The words were spoken in 1943 by George William Norris, who died only months after uttering them. Norris, who had served five terms in the U.S. Senate representing Nebraska, was speaking to the state’s Unicameral shortly after having been turned out of national office.
The Nebraskan is profiled in a newly released book co-written by Gene Budig, chancellor emeritus of Kansas University, and Don Walton, political writer for the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper.
The brief book, “George Norris, Going home: Reflections of a Progressive Statesman,” fundamentally was written more than 50 years ago when Budig and Walton, both then reporters for the Lincoln Star, collaborated on a six-part series about Norris for the newspaper, a series that also was carried nationally by the Associated Press. The two had, at one time, contemplated a book, but it was not until Budig’s wife, Gretchen, stumbled upon a yellowing manuscript that the two resurrected the project.
Publication by the University of Nebraska Press followed shortly. In fact, the first printing sold out before the book’s official release this month, thanks to numerous institutional purchases. A second printing is imminent, and the book has been added to the high school history reading list in Nebraska, assuring continued exposure of Norris’ accomplishments, Budig noted.
The book picks up Norris’ career at its end and follows the heartbroken senator (who also served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives) on a train ride home, with flashbacks to the important milestones of a hugely significant career that’s now more or less forgotten, and to Norris’ final days in McCook, Neb.
This is not “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure,” although some parallels exist.
This is the poignant story of a defeated politician, whose political end ultimately came because he believed he was elected to act in the best interests of those he represented, rather than to be ruled by polls. Before his career ended, his accomplishments were many: establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority; the Rural Electrification Act; creation of Nebraska’s non-partisan Unicameral, a one-house legislative body; the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (moving the start and finish dates of presidential terms), and bucking the system to limit the powers of the Speaker of the House, among others.
John F. Kennedy lauded Norris in his book, “Profiles in Courage,” and when in 1955 a committee was established to select five senators whose portraits were to be displayed in the Senate Reception Room, 160 historians and biographers were surveyed to assist in the selection; more of them named Norris than any other.
Budig, like Norris, called McCook home. The book references visits by schoolchildren to the Norris home, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Budig recalls that he himself visited the home as part of a school project.
Budig, whose monthly column appears in 200 daily newspapers including the Journal-World, obviously wrote this book prior to many others he has authored. Nevertheless, the Norris project appears to continue a theme that appears in many of Budig’s books: the importance of character.
Budig said he believes Norris illustrates that someone or some group from a small Midwestern state can have a profound impact, and that Norris’ career reminds us all that Midwesterners are people of vision and ability who can “render needed public service — and give the nation hope for the future. An individual with courage and high principles can make a difference.”