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The Blind Senator

If you were asked to name a famous blind person, it’s a pretty safe bet you might mention Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Helen Keller, or, if you’re a literary type, John Milton or the Greek epic poet, Homer. This roll-call, however, would omit my personal favorite and someone you’ve probably never heard of.

Tom Gore was the first of two blind men elected to the U.S. Senate. (Although the Mississippi Gores are distantly related to the Tennessee Gores, there is only the thinnest genealogical connection between the Senator and the former Vice President.)

Gore was born in 1870 with normal vision which he lost in two separate childhood accidents, the first when he was six and the second when he was eleven. He apparently had a prodigious memory, a quick mind, and considerable personal drive. Only four years after losing all of his vision, Gore was a page in the Mississippi State Senate.

He briefly taught school after graduation but moved to Middle Tennessee where he received his law degree at twenty-two. He returned to Mississippi, passed the bar, and entered his father’s law practice.

Because he enjoyed a reputation as both a debater and orator, he was in considerable demand to travel nationally speaking on behalf of Populace and Democratic Party candidates.

After living for a few years in Texas, Gore moved to the Oklahoma Territory. There he was elected one of the State’s first two Senators in 1907. He was re-elected in 1908 and 1914 but lost his seat in 1920 for opposing American entry into World War I. He turned down the offer of a cabinet position from President Wilson. He was elected one final time in 1930 but, after being defeated for a second time in 1936, he retired to practice law in Washington until his death in 1949.

In an era decades before Recordings for the Blind, Talking Books, to say nothing of audible books, Gore always traveled with the government documents and papers he needed for his work and prevailed upon strangers he was traveling with to read to him. As far as I’ve been able to learn, he never learned Braille and, instead, depended on his remarkable memory. The author, Gore Vidal, who grew up in his grandfather’s home, remembered how he was taught to read quite young so he could read newspapers, the Congressional Record, and works of history to his grandfather.

Believe it or not, the Senate, especially prior to World War I, was a far less civil place than it is today. More than once, Gore’s political opponents tricked him into signing documents that were opposed to his party’s best interests.

My favorite story regarding Gore occurred one day when, having concluded a speech on an especially contentious issue, he was leaving the Senate chamber. “If you weren’t blind,” one of his political opponents mumbled under his breath, “I’d whip you within an inch of your life.”

Gore turned and announced to the entire chamber, “Somebody blindfold the son of a bitch and point him this way.” I doubt the line is in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but it ought to be.

As his grandson said, “As far as I know, he is the only Senator from an oil state who didn’t retire a wealthy man.”

PS The other blind Senator was Thomas D. Schall of Minnesota. He was blinded at twenty-six. He served in the House of Representatives from 1915-23 and in the Senate from 1925-35, so, for five years, Gore and Schall were Senatorial colleagues, one Republican and one Democrat.

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