5 Famous Filibusters
On Wednesday, after a mere 13 hours, Senator Rand Paul ended his filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director. While the thought of more than half a day of nonstop speaking may make the glossophobes among us (consider my hand raised) blanch, it’s just a drop in the bucket for filibusterers. Here are five of the most famous filibusters in history—all of which are hours longer than Paul’s baker's dozen.
1. Strom Thurmond, 1957
At 24 hours and 18 minutes, Sen. Strom Thurmond still holds the record for the longest uninterrupted filibuster, and for good reason: he came prepared. See, the filibusterer can’t leave the floor for any reason, not even a bathroom break. So to thwart his bladder, Thurmond took advance steam baths to sweat out all excess fluids, and then made an intern stand by with a bucket during the filibuster, just in case.
So what was the offending bill that Strom felt so strongly about? The Civil Rights Act of 1957. It passed anyway.
2. Huey Long, 1935
Huey Long of Louisiana was the master of the filibuster, reading everything from Shakespeare to recipes just to hear the sound of his own voice. His most famous oratory came in 1935, a ploy to require Senate confirmation for the National Recovery Administration’s senior employees. For 15.5 hours, Long analyzed every section of the Constitution, then noticed that a good chunk of the room was either asleep or totally zoned out. Long then suggested to Vice President John Nance Garner that everyone should be forced to pay attention, but Garner was unmoved, replying, “That would be unusual cruelty under the Bill of Rights.” The same night, Long started reading recipes for fried oysters and potlikkers. Finally, around 4 a.m., he could no longer ignore the call of nature and ended the filibuster.
3. Alfonse D'Amato, 1992
Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York is no stranger to a lengthy filibuster—he falls just shy of Strom Thurmond when it comes to long-windedness, once talking for 23 hours and 30 minutes to delay debate on a 1986 military spending bill. He started reading the phone book during that one. But it’s D’Amato’s 15-hour filibuster in 1992 that kept his fellow lawmakers entertained: He broke into “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” as part of his talkathon to stop 800-plus jobs from being moved from New York to Mexico.
4. Bob La Follette, 1917
Library of Congress
Wisconsin Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette nearly incited a riot with his filibuster in 1917. With just 26 hours left of the 64th Congress, La Follette decided to filibuster to stop legislation that would arm merchant ships against the Germans. When the presiding officer opted to recognize only those who had opposed the filibuster, LaFollette lost his temper and came close to throwing a brass spittoon. As some senators circled around Fighting Bob to calm him down, Senator Harry Lane noticed that Senator Ollie James of Kentucky was packing a pistol. He decided that if James tried to draw it, he would use his own smuggled weapon, a steel file, and stab James in the neck with its sharp point. Luckily, it didn’t come to that. After declaring that he would have to be removed from the floor—"I will continue on this floor until I complete my statement unless somebody carries me off, and I should like to see the man who will do it"—La Follette was finally convinced to take his seat. He was one of just six senators to vote against a declaration of war a few weeks later.
5. Bob La Follette, 1908
You'd think La Follette would have avoided the stall tactic entirely after flirting with a fatal filibuster in '08. As we saw earlier this week, filibustering requires food. So sometime around 1 a.m. on May 30, La Follette asked a page to get him a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk mixed with raw eggs for fortification. Though perhaps it was an honest mistake, the Senate website suggests that the kitchen staff, annoyed at having to work around the clock for the filibuster, purposely used eggs that had gone over. La Follette noticed that the drink tasted suspect after taking a big gulp, but the damage had been done: Shortly thereafter, the senator began feeling sick and started sweating profusely. He stepped down from filibustering around 7 a.m. after 18 hours and 23 minutes at the pulpit. Tests on the drink showed that its contents were so toxic that they would have killed anyone who drank the entire glass.