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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Senators Worth Remembering

James P. Pope, Idaho

The Fourth in a Series…

Democrat James Pinckey Pope served only one term in the United State Senate from 1933 to 1939, but left his mark on both domestic and foreign policy. Pope was the first Boise Mayor to go directly to the United States Senate. Dirk Kempthorne repeated that political leap 60 years after Pope’s election.

Pope, a Louisiana native and University of Chicago law school grad, came to Boise in 1909, served in a variety of civic and political positions, including a term as mayor and work in the Idaho Attorney Generals office, before his election to the Senate in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932.

Pope was a reliable New Dealer whose election to the Senate clearly benefited from Roosevelt’s popularity as the Great Depression gripped the nation and Idaho. As Idaho historian Bob Sims has written, Pope’s 1932 campaign “anticipated the New Deal, as he stressed ‘the issue of the little man’ and ‘economic relief for the lower strata.'”

Idaho’s great Sen. William E. Borah was nearly as much of an issue in Pope’s 1932 campaign as was the nation’s distressed economy. Borah nominally supported his GOP colleague John Thomas, but did little to campaign for him, while Pope stressed that Borah’s vote in the Senate had often been cancelled by the more conservative Thomas. Pope easily defeated Thomas and soon enough emerged from the huge political shadow cast by Borah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

While Borah, like many of his Idaho constituents, was a committed non-interventionist in matters of foreign policy, Pope was an advocate for American involvement in the World Court and the League of Nations. Critics in Idaho, according to Sims, took to calling Pope the “ambassador to Europe from Idaho,” especially after the junior senator made two European trips in 1934 and 1935.

Ironically Pope’s participation in the Senate investigation of the munitions industry – the so called Nye Committee of 1934 and 1935 – served to undercut his internationalist foreign policy views. The Nye Committee, named for progressive Republican and isolationist North Dakota Sen. Gerald P. Nye – held more than 90 hearings investigating the role big money and the big armaments industry played in U.S. involvement in World War I. The committee reflected much popular sentiment in the country in the early 1930’s that the U.S. had blundered into the world war and that Wall Street – J.P. Morgan was hauled before the committee – had added and abetted American intervention by selling arms to all the belligerents.

The munitions industry earned the label “merchants of death,” which was also the title of a best selling book advancing the theory of Wall Street conniving to get the country into war. Nye earned lasting Democratic scorn for attacking Woodrow Wilson. Nye accused the former president of being less than honest about why the country had gone to war in 1917.

The Nye committee, with Alger Hiss serving as counsel for a time and with prominent members like Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, gave momentum to those, like Borah, who favored neutrality legislation and a general withdrawal from European affairs.

As a reliable vote for any manner of New Deal legislation, including FDR’s controversial court packing scheme in 1937, Pope’s political standing in Idaho, particularly compared to Borah, suffered near the end of his only term. The Idaho Democratic Party was also fractious, with Pope clearly at home in the liberal wing of the party. When a more conservative Democrat, popular eastern Idaho Congressman D. Worth Clark, challenged Pope for the Democratic nomination in 1938, Clark won. Clark’s foreign policy views were much more in line with Borah than Pope had ever been.

Still, even with defeat for re-election to the Senate, Pope’s political career was far from over. In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Pope to be a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a position he held until 1951. After his TVA tenure, Pope lived in Tennessee, practicing law, and eventually relocated to Alexandria, Virginia where he died in 1963.

James P. Pope of Idaho was another United States Senator worth remembering.

Others in this series: Reed Smoot of Utah, Bronson Cutting of New Mexico and Edward Costigan of Colorado.

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