Sunday, April 26, 2015

Former Texas Rep. Bruce Alger dies

U.S. Rep. Bruce Alger (center) was among the protesters who greeted vice presidential candidate Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson in November 1960 when they visited Dallas.

Bruce Alger, a provocative Republican congressman from Texas whose staunch conservative views prefigured the tea party movement decades later, and whose angry confrontation with Lyndon Johnson may have affected the outcome of the 1960 presidential election, died April 13 at
an assisted living facility in Palm Bay, Fla. He was 96.

The cause was a heart ailment, said his daughter, Jill Alger.

Alger was elected to the U.S. House in 1954 from a district that included Dallas, which was long considered a cauldron of extreme right-wing views. He was the first Republican in Congress from Texas in more than 20 years.

A one-time Princeton football player, Alger was young and energetic and drew much of his support from Republican women’s groups, which led to dramatic political consequences years later.

During his 10 years in Congress, Alger did not sponsor any significant legislation and was known mostly for the things he opposed, based on his belief in a limited government. In his first two terms, he supported the measures of President Dwight Eisenhower — a fellow Republican — only 9
percent of the time.

Alger voted against public housing, integration efforts, Medicare, subsidized school lunches and increases in Social Security. He called the Peace Corps a form of creeping socialism.

In 1963, while speaking to a consortium of conservative groups in Washington, Alger called for getting the United States out of the United Nations, driving  the communists from Cuba and banning any official recognition of communist states. He said Congress should be required to balance the budget and recommended the adoption of a “flat tax,” in which people of all income levels would pay at the same tax rate.

Many of those themes continue to be bedrock conservative principles and have underscored the growth of the tea party movement in recent years.

Alger also presaged 21st-century politics with his unwillingness to compromise. Asked about the next congressional session, he told Time magazine in January 1958:

“I foresee bitterness and hatefulness. We are going to squabble and fight and make the world think we hate each other and that we can’t solve our problems. We are going to have bigger and bigger budgets, higher taxes, more government spending at home and abroad, and more inflation accompanied by deficit financing. Happy New Year!”

Despite his outspoken rhetoric, Alger was ranked by the Washington press corps as the second-least-effective member of Congress, after Adam Clayton Powell, an embattled Democrat from New York.

As the lone Republican in the Texas delegation, Alger was isolated from his state’s most powerful political figure, Johnson, who was the Senate majority leader before becoming the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1960.

When Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, visited Dallas less than a week before the 1960 election, Alger led a group of demonstrators, consisting largely of well-heeled women.

Brandishing a sign reading “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists,” Alger said, “We’re going to show Johnson he’s not wanted in Dallas.”

The women in the crowd, who became known as the Mink Coat Mob, accosted the Johnsons as they attempted to step out of their car. One woman grabbed Lady Bird’s white gloves and threw them in a gutter.

Later, the demonstrators surrounded the couple in the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel. Curses and spittle filled the air, and Lady Bird Johnson was struck over the head with a placard.

When Alger was asked to control the crowd, he reportedly replied, “I don’t think it is rude to show a socialist and traitor what you think of him.”

Republican Richard Nixon had been leading the statewide polls, but Alger and his followers had crossed a line of civility that was shocking even in rough-and-tumble Texas.

“The ugly incident in the Adolphus outraged thousands of Texans and many more thousands of Southerners in other states,” as columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in 1966.

The sentiment of voters turned toward John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, in the final days of the campaign. Nixon later said, “Well, we lost Texas in 1960 because of that ... congressman in Dallas” — referring to Alger with a vulgar epithet.

Bruce Reynolds Alger was born June 12, 1918, in Dallas and grew up in Webster Groves, Mo. His father was a bank representative and an oil-and-gas salesman.

Alger’s only sibling, a younger sister, died in a fire during a dance recital when she was 9.

Alger was a 1940 graduate of Princeton University, where he played center on the football team. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces as a B-29 pilot in the Pacific. His bomber, named “Miss America ‘62” for his daughter, has been restored and is on display at Travis Air Force Base in California.

Before serving in Congress, Alger was a real estate developer in Dallas. After he lost his 1964 bid for re-election, he worked in real estate and investing in Florida and Dallas.

His first wife, the former Lucille “Lynn” Antoine, called herself a “political widow” when their marriage ended in divorce in 1961. She said the only interest she and her husband had in common was playing gin rummy, “but he quit because I beat him.”

His second wife, Priscilla Jones Alger, died in 2012 after 36 years of marriage.

Two sons from his first marriage, David Alger and Steven Alger, died in 1964 and 2012, respectively. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Jill Alger of The Villages, Fla.; two stepchildren, Robert Jones of Amherst, Mass., and Laura Jones of Chatham, Mass.; seven
grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Alger retired in 1990 and spent 10 years traveling around the country with his wife in an RV before settling in Barefoot Bay, Fla., in 2000.

Among Alger’s many colorful comments was this self-assessment soon after he was elected to Congress in 1954: “My ignorance of politics couldn’t be matched by anybody in politics.”

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