GEORGE W. NORRIS was conspicuous in that Progressive movement which has so greatly affected American politics. He grew up on a farm in Ohio and earned money for his education by working on farms and later by teaching in country schools. He studied law moved west, and opened an office in Beaver City, Nebraska. Active, energetic, keenly interested in political questions, and with a taste for speaking formed in the debating societies that had been a feature in his education, it was almost inevitable that he should get into politics.
Like many who enter public life, he believed that he did so only at the call of duty. He speaks of his service as a District Judge, the office he held when first elected to Congress, as the most satisfactory period in his life. One doubts if he quite appreciated his own motives or the subconscious fascination of a public career. Certainly he never turned back, and remained in Washington for over forty years—in the House until 1912, and then in the Senate for three successive terms. He only retired in 1942 when defeated in a Senatorial election, and he speaks of that defeat as a great disappointment.
As a young man, Norris “thought the Republican Party was perfect.” Indeed, until 1936, when he ran for the Senate as an Independent, he always was elected as a Republican. It is an illustration of the confusion in political parties that he was able to remain for so long technically a regular Republican, while often opposing the policies of the party and sometimes voting against its Presidential candidates. He never became a Democrat, however, for he grew to dislike both political organizations.
He had the faculty, so convenient in politics, of believing in the righteousness of his own cause and in the iniquity of the opposing forces, coupled with tolerance for individuals among his opponents. In return, he enjoyed the liking and respect of many of those who were most irritated by the group to which he belonged. He quotes Speaker Cannon as having said to him, “If any member of your damned gang had to be elected to the Senate, I would prefer it to be you more than any of them.”
Throughout his career Norris was consistent in the advocacy of measures which he hoped would produce purity in government, greater opportunities for the poor, and the conservation of the country’s natural resources. Men felt he was sincere and they knew where he would stand on most public questions. It was only in foreign affairs that his course reflected the bewildered uncertainty that hampered America until the country was united by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
This book is about an interesting man in an interesting environment, but it is unsatisfactory in many ways. It is unbalanced — diffuse in some places and curiously reticent in others. For example, there is no mention of Norris’s personal attitude toward Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose name does not even appear in the index. There is little record of Norris’s intellectual development. We are left in ignorance as to whether he died poor or rich, as to his social and religious affiliations, and as to much else we should like to know. The book is the combined result of dictation by Senator Norris, completed shortly before his death, and of the work of his friend, Mr. J. E. Lawrence, who, Norris says, was called in “to elaborate upon some parts of the material and to eliminate others in order to create a balanced story within the necessary limits.” It is not easy to be sure where Senator Norris leaves off and Mr. Lawrence begins.
ARTHUR D. HILL