By Margo McCutcheon
Rayburnisms are what people have called quotes from Sam Rayburn. Some Rayburnisms are insightful, some full of wisdom, some are funny, and some are kind of mean and petty (I like to call those RayBURNisms).
Some quotes feature Mr. Sam’s religious teachings, and others show how he was always a die-hard Democrat with something to say about his Republican colleagues and what they may or may not have accomplished during a congressional session.
In honor of what would have been Mr. Sam’s 140th birthday on January 6, 2022, please enjoy and spread the word about the following Rayburnisms. Whether you think they’re appropriate in our modern times, sound like a sermon, feel a little too tough on the subject of the quote, love them, hate them, or believe that they sound more like a line from an episode of “Hee Haw” rather than a quote from one of the most powerful and respected politicians of the 20th century—I hope you’ll find something to share with your friends and family.
Content Warning: Mr. Sam wasn’t afraid to use “colorful” language when he needed to emphasize a point, and you will see that within some of these quotes.
“My birthdays don’t mean anything to me. There’s nothing you can do about avoiding ‘em.”
“Once a young man or woman has decided on their goal, they should use all the energy and brains they have to improve themselves, work hard and be honest and fair to everyone, as they would ask others to be fair to them. Their ambition should be to do a little better today than they did yesterday.”
“I am a Hard-Shell Baptist. But if no one gets into Heaven but us Baptists, it’ll be a mighty lonely place. And, they’ll have to expand the other place.”
“People don’t do things for you because you’ve done things for them; it’s what they’ve done willingly for you that cements friendship.”
“When you see a man get stuffy or arrogant because he holds a big job, it means he was not big enough for the job when he got it.”
“Glad to see young folks my age.”
“All of us hate to see the 20s, 30s, or 40s slipping away. But every stage of life has its compensations. Some men apparently ripen earlier than others and burn out early. I know that the period after age 50 was the best for me.”
“If you say you’re tired, you will be tired.”
“I don’t coddle people, but I do try to make them think they’re somebody. I listen to them, I try to treat everyone—man, woman, and child—as though they are over 21. But, most important of all, I try to tell the truth. I am as honest and fair as I know how to be.”
“I’m not worried about our young people. It makes me tired to hear all this talk about the young generation going to hell in a sack.”
“I am not afraid as long as I do what seems right. The people are my tribunal.”
“A fellow can spend too much time on the golf course when he’s needed to mind the store.”
“I have lived quite awhile but I know that I shall be old only when some day I find myself sitting around with others bewailing the younger generation and talking about how much better we did things in our day.”
“I do believe in religion and God. God becomes more personal to me every day I live. We should all look to Him for guidance in times of stress and trouble.”
“There has never been a crisis in American history when the youth was challenged that they did not respond with resilience and integrity.”
“I hate to take a licking.”
“I believe in people and the soundness of their judgement when they have the facts. I know that 98 percent of the people have more good than bad in them and can be trusted to do the right thing.”
“There is a time to fish and a time to mend nets.”
“It is a wise man who realizes that the church is bigger than its pastor.”
“Don’t ever count the crop until it is in the barn.”
“Damn the man who is always looking for credit. I have always noticed that if a man does his job, and does it well, he will get more credit than he is really entitled to.”
“My father was a Primitive, or Hard-Shell, Baptist. Somewhat as a result of my early environment I lean toward his Church—colloquially, the ‘old hard-shell or foot-washing’ kind. Not a single one of them ever failed to pay his debts.”
“It was my sole purpose here to help enact such wise and just laws that our common country will by virtue of these laws be a happier and more prosperous country.”
“The size of a man has nothing to do with his height.”
“In my own life, faith has been the greatest moving factor because those with little faith falter and usually fall by the wayside.”
“I think no punishment could be too severe on anyone who would take a public trust and misuse it.”
“It is easy to be an obstructionist: It’s hard to be a constructionist.”
“The battle for peace and tolerance is never won, but each of us must daily make the best contribution he can toward the task of making all men live together as brothers and as children of God.”
“If I can’t do my job standing on my feet, I sure can’t do it lying in bed worrying.”
“I know what it is to want things, and I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten. There’s not a boy or girl in America that I wouldn’t like to put my hand on their heads and say, ‘I am for you and go to it.’ I wish in those dark, blue days that someone would have come along and said, ‘Sam, we’ve got confidence in you; we believe you’re going to make a great one.’”
“I have always been a disciple of the doctrine that people are good folks, and I have great faith in them.”
“‘Wait a minute’—that’s just about the smartest thing anybody ever said.”
“I love the dirt. I like to walk on it. I like to grow things on it. I like to preserve it. Everything comes from the dirt and eventually goes back to the dirt.”
“It’s better to be silent and pretend to be dumb than to speak and remove all doubt.”
“Every good man in Washington who has been talked about for the presidency has been ruined by it. Except me.”
“You cannot lead people by trying to drive them. Persuasion and reason are the only ways to lead them. In that way the Speaker [of the U.S. House of Representatives] has influence and power in the House.”
“You know, I just missed being a tenant farmer by a gnat’s whisker.”
“When two men agree on everything, one of them is doing all the thinking.”
“A high standard of living is a desirable thing, but more desirable—and more enduring—is a high standard of life.”
About Texas Governor Allan Shivers (governor from 1949-1957): “If I was as alarmed and cruel as Shivers, I might say Shivers likes Shivers better than anything else, but I wouldn’t say that about any man.”
“I have never hated any man, although I have been temporarily provoked with several.”
“Some people’s skins are mighty tough when they give it out and are mighty thin when they have to take it.”
About the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy: “When the press boys called me, I just said that I had no comment because I did not know him well. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead in public. If I had said what I really felt, I would have said, ‘The world gained nothing by his having lived, and it lost nothing when he died.’”
About farmers who did not practice soil conservation: “Yes, keep running your straight rows up and down the hill and your harvest will be much lighter and easier, too.”
About Republican policy in 1954: …“‘dynamic’ as the dodo bird, as ‘forward looking’ as yesterday.”
Democrats, Republicans, and Politics:
“We are all in this thing together whether we be Republican, Democrat, or what not. This Republic is going to live; if we do our duty, if we do the things that will preserve, protect, defend, and perpetuate these great institutions, we will be a free people.”
“To get along, go along. But I’ve never asked a man to cast a vote that would violate his conscience or wreck him politically.”
“The House of Representatives has been my life, my love, my romance.”
“Political parties are like individual men. As every man is the sum total of his inheritance, environment and experience, so are political parties. You know some men who are pained by injustice and will oppose it. You also know men who are blind to injustice and they just simply say, ‘Well, that is not my suffering.’ You know selfless men and you know selfish men; you know generous men and you know stingy men. And in every case where the chips are down, they will behave according to the laws of their inner nature.”
“Men who represent the people should be as far removed as possible from concerns whose interests he is liable to be called to legislate on.”
“I am not a compromiser—I had rather be known as a persuader. I try to compromise by getting people to think my way. Of course, there are times when you haven’t got the votes, then you have to make concessions. But in the main, you can get what you want by sticking to your guns.”
“It isn’t how long a man has been in office but how well he serves.”
“If the people back home don’t have enough faith in their Representative here to feel that, being in the midst of these things, he knows more about when changes come and situations that have to be met in emergency than the average citizen, why, they aren’t going to keep him there.”“In a democracy passion may propose, but reason will ultimately dispose. Under other forms of government, what force ordains, only counterforce can change.”
“Don’t talk too much. There is a great temptation for public officials and political leaders to talk too much. President Coolidge once said very wisely, ‘You never have to explain something you didn’t say.’ If you are sensible in what you say and do not talk too much, people will listen with care and interest to your views.”
“Age may well bring dry rot as well as wisdom. While you may find a few amiable idiots among us Democrats, you won’t find any old fogies—or those who are worse than old fogies—young fogies.”
“One of the beautiful things about service in the House [of Representatives] is that personal relationships and personal friendships are not divided by the center aisle. Some of the nearest and dearest friends I have ever had in the House of Representatives were on the left of the Speaker’s stand. I hope it may always be so.”
“When Democrats enact welfare laws, they are ‘socialistic,’ but when Republican leadership embraces Democratic welfare laws, it is evidence of their tender concern for individual human dignity.”
About refusing to allow television cameras in the House of Representatives: “When a man has to run for re-election every two years, the temptation to make headlines is strong enough without giving him a chance to become an actor on television. The normal processes toward good law are not even dramatic, let alone sensational enough to be aired across the land.”
“Men in the House are not supermen, of course. They are patriotic, average men, with average common sense, and that’s good enough. It is the greatest privilege on earth to be their Speaker for I too, am just an average man; no better, I know, and no worse, I hope, than other average Americans.”
“We Democrats are not doing any too badly now. The Republicans could probably have won the House and Senate without making a single promise, but they did get out and made some that they cannot live up to. There is a great deal of difference in being on the sidelines and jeering at what other people are trying to do and being in the middle and trying to carry some of the load.”
“A politician’s got to have publicity to live, but he can damn well get too much of it.”
“My theory is that legislation should never be passed to punish, but to bring about justice.”
Some U.S. Presidents had Rayburnisms about them, or quoted Mr. Sam during various speeches that they gave over the years—proof that Mr. Sam lives on in history not only by what he did, but what he said. Through the United States National Archives and Records website, you can search for documents including presidential libraries and papers, which is where I found former President Reagan and former President Clinton quoting Mr. Sam. All of the other quotes are what Mr. Sam said about the indicated president.
Dwight D. Eisenhower:
“Any jackass can kick a barn down but it takes a carpenter to build it. I hope General Eisenhower will learn fast and that he will get some good advice.”
“I like President Eisenhower; I’ve often pointed out to him he’s a constituent of mine. He was born over here in Denison, in this Congressional District. And I have been told that he was a good baby.”
“…just as good a man as an individual, and if he were not in politics, he would be just the kind of fellow you would want to know.”
John F. Kennedy:
“That boy grows on you! People everywhere seem to like him.”
Lyndon B. Johnson:
“Lyndon listens to every fool that can grab him. Well, of course, he has to. I listen to them, too, but the difference between me and Lyndon is that he feels he has to answer them back. Usually, I just walk away.”
Richard M. Nixon:
“There’s a lot of talk about how I hate Nixon. I have hated some things he’s said and all that, but as far as Mr. Nixon and I personally are concerned, we are on very friendly terms when we meet. I just don’t like cruel people, and I thought in 1954 that Mr. Nixon was very cruel.”
“The meanest face I’ve ever seen in the House [of Representatives].”
“I was never an enthusiastic Nixon man. I didn’t like his type—I didn’t like his sayings and I didn’t like his performance.”
About whether or not Nixon will be elected in 1960: “In the first place, he’s not going to be elected. I have faith in these American people. He’s just too light for these dangerous times—a little man on a big horse.”
“I said all the time that Nixon would finally take the Nixon low road, which he is now doing, and which he has done in every campaign he has ever had.”
“I would dislike very much to see Nixon as President of the United States because I know him so well.”
Ronald W. Reagan:
Ronald Reagan quoted or referenced Rayburn in a few of his speeches. Quotes taken from papers in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Address to the Nation on Events in Lebanon and Grenada, 1983: “Sam Rayburn once said that freedom is not something a nation can work for once and win forever. He said it’s like an insurance policy; its premiums must be kept up to date.”
National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 1984: “…Sam Rayburn, a very wise Democratic Speaker of the House, once said: Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
William J. Clinton:
Bill Clinton said this phrase in a few of his speeches and credited Rayburn.
Quotes taken from papers in the Clinton Presidential Materials Project.
Interview with WLIB Radio, New York, 1994: “Sam Rayburn said any jackass can kick down a barn; it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Democratic National Convention dinner, 1997: “…even a jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship Training Center, 1998, after telling a story about a letter Rayburn sent to Clinton’s aunt after Clinton’s father died in a car accident: “He [Rayburn] said, any old mule can kick a barn down; it takes a carpenter to build one.”
The following Rayburnisms are some that the staff members at the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site have chosen as their favorites. Visit us at the site to learn about all things Mr. Sam, his family, and the place he called home.
“Drudgery, darkness, and muddy roads are not conducive to anything that is good.”
“Any man who will deceive the voters during a political campaign will deceive them after he is elected.”
“It will be a sad day for the country when only men of great means can afford to represent their districts of the states in the Congress of the United States.”
“There is no such thing as standing still. You either go forward or backward.”
“I do not write speeches—I just speak.”
“The Constitution is not a straight-jacket—changing times and changing concepts have moved the American people to amend it 22 times. If not all change is good change, not to change at all is to be dead; or worse, to be dead while still living.”
Dulaney, H.G., and Edward Hake Phillips, eds. Speak, Mr. Speaker. Bonham, TX: Sam Rayburn Foundation, 1978.
Hardeman, D.B., and Donald C. Bacon. Rayburn: A Biography. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1989.
Steinberg, Alfred. Sam Rayburn: A Biography. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1975.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed December 9, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/.
Clinton Presidential Materials Project. https://clintonwhitehouse6.archives.gov/.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/.