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5 Weird Things Done During Filibusters

On June 15, 2016, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy took to the Senate floor and launched a filibuster. His goal, according to Politico, was "to pressure Republicans to accept legislation that would deny suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms and require universal background checks."

“I’m going to remain on this floor until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together on these two measures, that we can get a path forward on addressing this epidemic in a meaningful, bipartisan way,” Murphy said. The filibuster is being livestreamed; you can watch it here.

The filibuster has been a controversial maneuver for well over a century. Both Henry Clay and Woodrow Wilson were vocal critics of the filibuster, with the latter claiming that it often rendered the government “helpless and contemptible.” Say what you will about the parliamentary procedure, but American filibusters have certainly produced some unusual moments, including these.

1. ASSAULT WITH A SPITTOON // MARCH 4, 1917

Robert La Follette was an antiwar Republican from Wisconsin who orchestrated a joint filibuster divided between a dozen sympathetic senators, which began on March 3 and stretched into the next day, incensing their colleagues. At one point, La Follette lost his temper and had to be physically restrained from hurling a brass spittoon at Arkansas’ Joseph Robinson.

2. SOUTHERN COOKING 101 // JUNE 12, 1935

“I have prepared recipes for many celebrated Louisiana dishes … people up in this part of the country never have learned to fry oysters as well as we have done down our way,” Huey Long said on June 12, 1935. Dreading the possibility that his political rivals might land lucrative New Deal jobs, the Bayou State Democrat prattled on well into the next day, providing detailed instructions for cooking gulf coast delicacies in the process. His filibuster ended when he had to go to the bathroom.

3. PREPARING A PEE BUCKET // AUGUST 28, 1957

The longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. senate was delivered by then-Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. What was it that he so vehemently opposed for over 24 straight hours? The Civil Rights Bill of 1957. And if you think your internship is underpaid, get a load of this: After a procedural trick was used at 1 a.m. to allow Thurmond a few minutes for a bathroom break, his supporters were determined that this wouldn’t happen again. Instead, his staff had an intern hold a bucket inside a nearby cloakroom so Thurmond could urinate, if necessary, while keeping one foot on the Senate floor. The bill passed anyway, but Thurmond’s technique was imitated during a St. Louis city hall filibuster in 2001. When nature called mid-filibuster, Alderwoman Irene Smith’s assistants covered her with a sheet as she peed into a garbage can.

4. READING THE PHONE BOOK // OCTOBER 17, 1986

Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY) nearly broke Thurmond’s record while stalling a military appropriations bill in 1986. Struggling to fill 23 and a half hours of speaking time, he resorted to reading aloud from the District of Columbia telephone book.

5. SINGING “SOUTH OF THE BORDER” // OCTOBER 5, 1992

Filibusters can be boring, so why not throw in a musical number? Six years after his first filibuster, D’Amato was at it again and chose to break out into song when he took the floor to denounce a proposed tax plan. This one only lasted a measly 15 hours and 14 minutes (at that time, the House adjourned for the year, and the tax bill that the filibuster was targeting died), but an eye-opening digression came when the Republican began singing “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” to satirize the outsourcing of American jobs.

BONUS: READING DR. SEUSS // SEPTEMBER 25, 2013

Technically, Cruz’s lengthy tirade in 2013 wasn’t an actual filibuster because it had no procedural impact on the vote at hand. But the Texas Republican made headlines when he read Green Eggs and Ham during his 21-hour critique of the Affordable Healthcare Act.

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Bill Pugliano, Getty Images
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TBT
When Topps Fought Terrorism with Trading Cards
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

On the morning of September 11, 2001, John Perillo looked out of his office window at 1 Whitehall Street in Manhattan and saw a plane flying at a dangerously low altitude. Almost instantly, his building began to shake. Seven blocks away, the plane had struck the World Trade Center.

It would be hours before Perillo and other New Yorkers were able to grasp the gravity of the situation. A terrorist attack on American soil stunned the world and created a widening panic and confusion before a kind of resolve set in. For Perillo, the vice president of operations at Topps Trading Card Company, and Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, it would become a time to memorialize the events of that day in the medium they understood best. Which is how Osama bin Laden came to have his own trading card.

Two kids sort through a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card set
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Although they were best known for sports cards, Garbage Pail Kids, and other entertainment properties, Topps had already recorded a significant history with real-world events. In 1950, they found success with a line of Korean War cards. More than a decade later, they memorialized the Civil War. A set reflecting on the life of John F. Kennedy following his assassination was released in 1964. In 1991, a line of cards depicting Operation: Desert Storm received endorsements from Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Within a week of the attack on the World Trade Center, Topps executives decided to pursue another—and substantially more controversial—line based on current events. Titled Enduring Freedom, the line featured 70 cards of figures like President George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki, and bin Laden. There would be cards of military vehicles and weapons; on the back were biographies of political figures and descriptions of the hardware. The goal, Shorin told the press, was to give kids information about the rising conflict in a format with which they were already familiar.

"Kids need to get information on their own terms," he said. "This is their medium."

While the plan came together quickly, the company largely avoided depictions that might upset children or their parents. One card featured a smoke-filled view of the transformed Manhattan skyline, but no pictures of the destruction or rubble were considered. In a departure from conventional card sets, no "chase" cards—or rare inserts that prompt consumers to buy more packs—would be involved. There was some internal debate about including bin Laden, but the company ultimately decided that kids might want the opportunity to defile his image by ripping it up. It's the only black and white card to appear in the set.

"We wouldn't be surprised if they tear, stomp all over it, and dump it in the garbage," Shorin said.

A photo of a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card wrapper
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Enduring Freedom was released in October 2001, which marked a rapid turnaround time for the card industry. (Sets typically take months to come together.) Hobby shops and larger retail outlets like Walmart accepted shipments of the 7-card product, which sold for $2 per pack, but not everyone was comfortable monetizing the tragedy. Stores in Chicago refused to carry the line, citing concern over appearing insensitive. (An unrelated 2002 card set by Chestnut Publications eulogizing victims of the 9/11 attacks, which was created with their families' permission, drew related headlines and accompanying criticism.)

In interviews, Shorin argued that the cards and their explanation of America's military would be comforting to children: Topps had consulted with child psychologists to make sure the content was age-appropriate. Though they were reticent to publicize it, the company was also donating a portion of proceeds to relief efforts. They even shipped 1 million cards to troops stationed overseas.

Ultimately, the notion of potentially trivializing the War on Terror never caught on. Topps never released a planned second wave that would feature high-tech military hardware, a likely result of the cards selling only modestly. As one store owner pointed out, it wasn't that the cards were offensive—it's just that kids were too preoccupied with Pokemon to bother.

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James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Big Questions
Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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