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Guest column | Jerry Blizin

Guest column: Biden not first vice president to misspeak

Although President Barack Obama has taken pains to restrain garrulous Vice President Joseph Biden, events keep overtaking him, as Biden's swine flu gaffe last month showed. But Obama should be delighted that Biden can't be compared to the totally outspoken 30th vice president, Charles G. Dawes.

Dawes was a Republican vice president who made a 1925 inaugural speech denouncing the Senate's rules as "subversive of representative government." He continued for the next four years to show distaste for the Senate, particularly its Democratic members.

"I should hate to think that the Senate is as tired of me at the beginning of my service as I am of the Senate at the end," he later trumpeted. But Dawes was more than simply a contrarian.

He was a man of many parts — a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an expert on the banking system of his era, a lawyer and engineer, controller of the currency under President William McKinley and the first director of the Bureau of the Budget, appointed by President Warren G. Harding.

Long before he became vice president, Dawes tried to straighten out the American banking system. Dawes became controller after McKinley's 1896 election and collected $25 million from banks that had failed in the panic of 1893. He also changed banking rules to prevent a repetition of the panic, which still ranks among the greater financial crises ever experienced in America.

Had President Herbert Hoover used him in a timely fashion to help mitigate the Great Depression, Dawes (and Hoover) might have gone down differently in history. Instead, Hoover sent him to be ambassador to the Court of St. James's, where he served until 1932. Hoover subsequently named him to the Reconstruction Finance Administration, but Dawes had to quit after a few months and go back to Illinois to save his own banks.

However, the high point — or possibly the low point — of his career came between 1925 and 1929, when he served four unique years as a vice president who so disliked his president, Calvin Coolidge, that he refused to attend Cabinet meetings and took naps rather than preside over the Senate.

On one of his snoozes he failed to preside over the Senate when he could have broken a tie vote on Coolidge's nominee for attorney general. The candidate lost anyway.

Supposedly, Dawes once told Sen. Alben Barkley (later to be Harry Truman's vice president), "This is a hell of a job. Either I have to sit around and listen to you birds or open the daily papers to check on the health of the president."

Dawes started out a business tycoon who amassed a utilities fortune in Nebraska, then went on to a successful banking career in Illinois. He wrote a book on banking and finance in the United States that propelled him into government service. (It was one of nine books he authored.)

Dawes' Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1925, was given for his crucial report on World War I German war reparations. He shared the prize with Neville Chamberlain's half brother, Austen.

Dawes played the piano and flute all his life. A 1911 musical composition of his called Melody in A Major was frequently played by the famed violinist, Fritz Kreisler. In 1951, the melody was turned into the pop hit It's All in the Game. The tune was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, the Four Tops, Elton John and many others.

Maybe, if he knows Dawes' story, Barack Obama will be happy to encourage reticence on the part of Joe Biden. He may even want him to hum a little tune, like It's All in the Game. The way Elton John sang the song, the third verse might be apropos:

Once in a while he won't call,

Oh, but it's all in the game.

Soon he'll be there at your side

With a sweet 'Okay'.

Jerry Blizin is a retired journalist who lives in Tarpon Springs.

Guest column: Biden not first vice president to misspeak 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 4:31am]

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