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The president and the senator

Published May 18, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During the recent effort to pass gun-control legislation, President Obama and his Democratic counterparts strategically framed the issue as an opportunity to protect America's children from harm's way.

Certainly not the first politician to deploy this thread of argumentation, Obama and his surrogates' recent appeal to Congress to pass "common-sense" gun-control reforms was strikingly similar in style and substance to the political rhetoric used by U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah, the Mormon apostle who served 30 years in the U.S. Senate (1903-1933).

In March of 1930, Republican Smoot, serving as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee in his fifth and final term, implored Congress to pass an amendment that would protect America's children from the dangers of obscene books.

As committee chairman, Smoot was responsible for chaperoning the Senate's version of the now-infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff act. Included within Smoot-Hawley were schedules that increased tariff rates on thousands of items, in addition to a provision that continued the policy of blocking vile literature from entering the country.

American tariff law from 1842 up to 1930 vested customs officers with authority at ports of entry to confiscate and destroy profane books being imported into the United States. During the protracted 1929-1930 tariff deliberations, Republican Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico offered an amendment in committee — it passed 38-36 — and stripped this literary censorship authority from the purview of customs workers. An infuriated Smoot vowed to have the matter considered again when the bill was reported out of committee.

When Smoot brought the issue back up for debate, he, like Obama, disclaimed any partisan motivation for pursuing the legislation that placed slight limitations on First Amendment rights. Smoot defined his actions as expressly not "for any political reason, but … purely on my understanding of the duties of a father and … a legislator."

In the Utah politician's mind, this was a great opportunity for Congress "to throw the arms of protection around the army of boys and girls who must constitute the citizenship of our country a little later on."

In reacting to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Obama said he believed that gun control reforms "protecting our children from harm shouldn't be a divisive one," since "our first task as a society" is to keep "children safe." Vice President Biden took it a step further, declaring "we have… a moral obligation to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again."

Smoot's ally on the book censorship issue, Republican Sen. Coleman Blease of South Carolina, amplified his colleague's position, asserting in the debate that the "virtue of one little 16-year-old girl is worth more to America than every book that has ever come into it from any other country."

Echoing similar sentiments a few months ago, Obama beseeched that "if there is a step we can take that will save even one child from what happened in Newtown, we should take that step."

Smoot's political rhetoric was successful in persuading several senators to switch their vote in favor of the amendment he was championing (it passed 54-28). Thus far, Obama has not had the same luck, though he has promised, like Smoot previously, to revisit the gun-control issue.

It is an open question if either man's preferred policy proscription would obtain the desired outcome of saving children. However, it will be interesting to see if the cyclicality of American politics comes full circle for President Obama, as it did in 1930 for Sen. Smoot.

Michael Harold Paulos has published several works on the political career of Reed Smoot. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.