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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,119

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This is the grave of James Pope.

Born in 1884 in Jonesboro, Louisiana, Pope grew up dirt poor. There were 13 children in his sharecropping family. He worked hard to rise out of his poverty. In fact, there was a contest in his parish on which kid could pick the most cotton. Pope won that. He also didn’t want to stay there. He wanted out and did the work against all odds to make that happen. Pope went to college at what today is Louisiana Tech University. He graduated in 1906. He then went to law school at the University of Chicago and finished there in 1909. Rather than stick around Chicago, Pope decided to go to a place where a young lawyer could quickly advance. His choice was Idaho. He moved to Boise and started a practice there, where he could also be involved in Democratic politics. To say the least, Pope became a far greater liberal than anyone might have expected for a Democrat from Louisiana. And in fact, even before moving to Boise, Pope was a determined man who wanted adventure. Between Chicago and Boise, he did an impoverished grand tour of Europe, taking a cattle boat over there and riding around on a second-hand bicycle. This was not your usual guy.

It did not take Pope long to start winning office in Idaho. He became city attorney, then the state’s assistant attorney general. He also served on the Boise Board of Education. This all led him to become the city’s mayor in 1929. This was somewhat surprising, as Idaho was an overwhelming Republican state, which Pope would often joke about as part of his strategy to get elected. In 1932, Pope decided to run for the Senate. It was of course a great year for Democrats, as the Republican wipeout of the Great Depression reached the second of its unprecedented three election cycles. John Thomas was running as the Republican incumbent, but being a Republican was a dead man walking scenario that year and Pope defeated him 55-42.

Pope was very strong New Deal liberal on most issues. Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to rely upon him as a reliable vote and leader of his ideas in the Senate. Pope was a big supporter of public power and pubic jobs programs. He fought to expand both the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Recovery Administration. He really liked the big dam projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority and he lobbied hard for a Columbia Valley Authority that would do the same for the Northwest and which Idaho would benefit strongly from due to the Snake being one of the largest tributaries of any major river in the nation. He was a strong conservationist and wanted more legislation to help small farmers. In short, he was a populist from the West, but unlike most of those guys, he was not an isolationist. Initially, this wasn’t the case. He co-sponsored a 1934 bill attacking the munitions industry that claimed it had pushed the nation in World War I. But conditions on the ground would cause a real shift among Pope. More on this in a moment. Pope also supported FDR’s court-packing idea. His rhetoric ran around the idea that this was a great nation except for the rich people taking all the resources and making sure the regular Joe got nothing.

In becoming a big name senator as a freshman, Pope upstaged the Republican Lion of Idaho, William Borah. In 1938. Borah gave his active support to Pope’s conservative Democratic primary challenger, Worth Clark and Pope lost the primary. There were a number of reasons for Borah’s direct intervention in the Democratic Party’s primary. First, Borah had a gigantic ego and he didn’t like this upstart making a big splash on liberal issues. Second, Pope was a big interventionist in Europe and talked frequently of the threat of Hitler. Borah was a leader of the isolationist wing in the Senate. As early as 1935, Borah was furious with Pope because the latter introduced a bill for the U.S. to join the League of Nations, noting that the rise of fascism should force a greater engagement in the world to fight it. In the long run, Pope looks a heck of a lot of better than your William Borahs or your Gerald Nyes here. But at the time, such interventionist positions were not popular in their home states. Among FDR’s attempts to get his people elected in 1938, this was one of the toughest defeats, especially given that he was an incumbent and Roosevelt seems to have thought he didn’t have to work at this one as he tried to primary Senate right-wingers.

Roosevelt was going to take care of Pope though, even as he had a lot of people to take care of when his intervention into primary politics in 1938 largely led to disaster for liberals. So FDR named him a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, replacing Arthur Morgan who had alienated the other leaders of the agency. Like a lot of rural state liberals, public power meant a lot to Pope. He stayed at the TVA until 1951, living in Knoxville, Tennessee, where TVA headquarters remains today. This really became his new home and he never did move back to Boise. Worth mentioning here how hated TVA remained among conservative power interests during these years. There were attempts to fund new public power agencies, especially along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. Even Strom Thurmond supported this for the Savannah River when he was governor of South Carolina. But the private power interests, seeking to roll back the New Deal, stopped them all and, at best, postwar power projects were collaborations between industry and the government. So conservatives wanted to strip TVA of its funding and its political power. Pope played the leading role in fighting this off and retaining the public interest side of regional development that had marked TVA since its beginning in 1933.

These were real wars too. For example, Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar used a meeting of the Senate Committee on Public Works to drop accusations that Pope and other TVA leaders were giving speeches in Knoxville supporting Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. I have trouble believing that McKellar actually thought Pope was doing this, but maybe he was indeed that stupid. The broader point here is that for opponents of the TVA and public power, the TVA was akin to Soviet domination of Poland.

Pope stayed in Knoxville after 1951 to practice law and work on public power issues until 1963. Then he moved to Alexandria, Virginia for his last years, as he had a son living there. He died there in 1966. He was 81 years old.

James Pope is buried in Lynnhurst Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other TVA leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. They are actually a very interesting group of people! Arthur Morgan is in Yellow Springs, Ohio and David Lilienthal is in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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