Congressman Leo Allen remembered

Congressman Leo Allen remembered

By Marc Schultz, Freelance Writer

Leo Allen of Galena, Ill., was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 28 years, from 1933 to 1961. For the last 12 years of his congressional service, his district (the Illinois 16th) included the city of Rockford.

I was a distant relative of Leo Allen, and, for the last year of his life, a good friend. The latter point is, perhaps, a little unusual—at that time, Leo was 74 years of age, and I was 22.

The early years of Leo Allen can be briefly recounted. He was born in October, 1898, in Elizabeth, Ill. He was a soldier in the U.S. Army during W.W.I; after his discharge from the military service, he married, had five children, and practiced law in Galena. From that remote area, his political career rose quickly. In 1932, he defeated the incumbent congressman, William Johnson, in the Republican primary for Johnson’s U.S. House seat. Leo Allen’s margin of victory was 600 votes. In November of that year, he was elected to Congress; he was 34 years old at the time.

The congressional career of Leo Allen was extremely successful. He ran for Congress 14 times, and 14 times he was elected. For four years (1947-1949, and 1953-1955) Leo was the chairman of the House Rules Committee. Although its powers have since been reduced, the House Rules Committee before the 1960s was extremely powerful. The rules committee controlled the flow of bills to the House floor, and determined whether floor amendments would even be permitted. It is safe to say that, when he was chairman, Leo Allen was one of the four or five most influential members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is also safe to assert that Rockford has never since seen his equal in congressional influence.

The first time that I ever met him was at his home in Galena, where he lived in retirement. I asked Leo his opinion of Richard Nixon—this was in 1966, two years before Nixon’s election as president. He replied that he had served on a House committee for four years with Nixon, and had a high regard for him. Nixon, it seems, had been a diligent committee worker. Then he added, “John Kennedy was a member of the committee, too.” And what kind of committee member was Kennedy? “He was never there.” And that was the end of that topic.

Before I left that evening, I asked Leo about the upcoming elections. The Republican Party had been decimated two years earlier. The Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, had been defeated in a landslide, and many Republican losses had been incurred across the entire country. What about this time? “I told somebody that I predict that the Republicans will gain 47 seats in the House,” Allen said.

To my 16-year-old mind, that prediction seemed a little too sanguine. From what I had read in Newsweek, Time, etc., I certainly thought that Leo’s guess was too optimistic. Nevertheless, on November 8, 1966, the Republican Party achieved a net gain of exactly 47 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Leo Allen had gotten my attention.

As I came to know him better, I was often surprised by his personal assessments of people. These judgments were certainly not determined in accordance with any political philosophy. For example, Leo’s personal opinion of General Douglas MacArthur was that the general’s personality was that of a “cold fish.” Leo Allen had visited MacArthur in MacArthur’s apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. That was in 1951, and MacArthur had recently been relieved of military command by President Truman. Allen, representing the congressional Republicans, came via appointment to present MacArthur with a plaque of appreciation. MacArthur took the item, and then mumbled a couple of words. Leo Allen had traveled from Washington, D.C. to New York City to present MacArthur with some token of appreciation, and the general did not offer his guest a chair or a drink. The lack of courtesy had left an impression, and the impression was never erased.

Also surprising was when Leo once told me that, although he didn’t get along with Truman, he had gotten along well with Franklin Roosevelt. This puzzled me, as Leo was a conservative Republican, and one who certainly considered F.D.R. to be a liberal Democrat. I asked for, and received, the following explanation: “Well, Roosevelt was a politician.” To Leo Allen, the word “politician” was not a pejorative term.

But, aside from these individual remarks about famous people, what was Leo Allen really like? Well, he was sociable—but one would expect that attribute in a politician. What one might not have anticipated from him was that he didn’t talk overly much. A conversation with him was not a monologue; it was a conversation, which meant that each participant spoke and listened. Leo Allen often listened.

However, as the years pass, the trait that he had that most impresses me can only be called humility. Leo Allen was not full of himself; he lived without any aura of grandeur. He was completely approachable, and, if a person were to meet Leo and not know about his personal history and former position, then that person would leave without suspecting that he had been with a man who once wielded substantial power.

The best example that I can give of Leo’s humility occurred several weeks before his death. He said that a man had come to see him—the man was a political scientist from Arizona—and that the visitor wanted to write the biography of Leo Allen. The man asked Leo for consent and co-operation—he received neither. The suggestion was firmly rejected. “Can you imagine,” Leo exclaimed, “why, my own grandchildren wouldn’t read it!”

Leo Allen died on January 19, 1973. My father was a pallbearer at the funeral, and I attended, also. The funeral was memorable for its smallness. Only about 50 people attended, mostly elderly residents of Galena and nearby towns. It was also memorable for its lack of dignitaries: no state senator, no state representative. Leo’s successor in Congress, John B. Anderson, was also absent. It was a modest farewell to a modest man.

Leo Allen was dead, but, unintentionally and surprisingly, I was still able to learn from him long after his death. The explanation for this requires one more personal reminiscence, told to me by Leo.

Dwight Eisenhower and Leo Allen were warm friends, and as the careers of both approached their respective ends, Leo would often visit the president in the White House. The subjects discussed were sometimes political, and often purely social. But Eisenhower was very disturbed that his friend was not going to run for re-election in 1960. The two men were standing in an upstairs room in the White House—I believe that it was in the Lincoln Bedroom—when Eisenhower said, “Leo, I’ll let you take one thing of your choice from this room if you’ll run for Congress one more time.” Leo declined, and retired.

Nearly 40 years after I first heard the previous story, the scales fell from my eyes. Bill Clinton was leaving the White House under many clouds, and one of them involved the improper taking of White House items. I certainly do not equate Eisenhower’s offer with Clinton’s alleged taking of White House property—the magnitude of the difference is too great; it would be very unfair to Eisenhower.

Nonetheless, as I remembered Leo’s words, I could only marvel at the situation. Presidential usurpation, even in regard to household items, is certainly not a recent phenomenon. And so, almost 30 years after his death, and quite unintentionally on his part, it happened once more: Leo Allen had gotten my attention.

Marc Schulz is a local resident.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!