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Rhodes, John Jacob, Jr.

Rhodes, John Jacob, Jr.

(b. 18 September 1916 in Council Grove, Kansas; d. 24 August 2003 in Mesa, Arizona), congressman from Arizona for thirty years who began his nine-year service as Republican minority leader during the Watergate investigation in 1973.

Rhodes was the third of three children of John Jacob Rhodes, Sr., and Gladys Anne (Thomas) Rhodes, both born in 1878. They met while attending Kansas State Normal School and married in 1901. A retail lumber dealer, John Rhodes, Sr., provided the family with a comfortable living until the Great Depression, when his underinsured lumber company burned down.

Rhodes grew up in Council Grove in eastern Kansas, formerly the home of several Indian tribes. His political interest sprouted in 1927, when the eleven-year-old met President Calvin Coolidge through a White House tour provided by Congressman Homer Hoch. During that visit Rhodes sat in on a session of the U.S. House of Representatives, which inspired him to later become a congressman himself. In high school Rhodes made good grades, was elected class president for three years and president of the student council his senior year, and played varsity football for three years. He received his BS from Kansas State University and his commission from the U.S. Army in 1938. When the Great Depression made work scarce, Rhodes decided to attend Harvard Law School. In 1941 Harvard provided him with his LLB although he had not technically completed his degree, a practice commonly afforded to students serving in the military who were nearly finished. During World War II Rhodes served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, advancing to lieutenant colonel by 1946. On 24 May 1942 he married Mary Elizabeth (“Betty”) Harvey; they had four children, including John J. Rhodes III, who would follow his father to serve as a congressman from Arizona (1987–1992).

In 1945 Rhodes was admitted to the Arizona bar. In 1946 he started a successful law practice in Mesa, through which he met James McNelis. The two became partners in an insurance company that helped support Rhodes’s political endeavors. In 1950 the politician Barry Goldwater convinced him to run, unsuccessfully, for attorney general in Arizona (a state that had a four-to-one ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans). Two years later Rhodes ran for Congress from the First Congressional District. After an aggressive campaign he beat out the Democrat John Murdock, predominantly due to the controversial Central Arizona Project (CAP) and because he stated that he would provide a “friendly” Congress for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. CAP, a plan for supplying Arizona with water from the Colorado River, became a long congressional battle for Rhodes that was eventually won in 1968.

In his first years in Congress, Rhodes served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which addressed Arizona’s water issues, education, and labor. To his enjoyment, he later served on the Independent Offices Subcommittee, which provided funding for the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program. Rhodes also served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1952, 1964, and 1968 and as its permanent chairman in 1976 and 1980. Although not known as a great orator, Rhodes encouraged and inspired people with his down-to-earth style. Congressmen knew him for his pleasant nature. Even after bitter debates, Rhodes later enjoyed the company of those with whom he had recently been at odds. Additionally, his record of dedication and honesty gained Rhodes enough support among his fellow congressmen and constituents to maintain his congressional seat for thirty years. He voted for the Civil Rights Act in July of 1964, which he felt was better than the proposal offered in February of that year. He made himself available to people and helped individuals and politicians alike. His ability to persuade was particularly helpful as minority leader when the small band of Republicans in the 1970s had to stay united to accomplish any goals.

Rhodes became the new House minority leader on 7 December 1973. Immediately following his election Rhodes found himself in the middle of the emerging Watergate controversy. He announced that he would step down as minority leader if he decided to vote for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment, but the day before Rhodes was to publicize his decision, new evidence turned up. Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974 after Rhodes, Senator Hugh Scott, and Senator Barry Goldwater informed the president that, under the circumstances, he would be impeached.

As minority leader during the administration of President Gerald R. Ford, Rhodes was able to bring his wife and J. Brian Smith (his press secretary, friend, and the author of his 2005 biography) on a trip to China, where they were among a small group of representatives invited to meet with Chinese leaders. He continued to serve as congressman under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. When President Carter’s environmental policies threatened to undermine Rhodes’s work for the CAP development, their relationship became strained. Rhodes and Reagan shared political similarities, but as a fiscal conservative Rhodes disagreed with the president’s economic plan.

Rhodes announced in 1980 that he would no longer serve as Republican House leader unless the party obtained a majority in the fall elections. Rhodes was easily elected to what he chose to be his final term in Congress. He was now able to spend his last two years speaking out on issues as he pleased. In September 1982 some one thousand guests attended his farewell dinner. On 16 December 1982 Rhodes gave his final address, in which he shared thirty years of experience and insight to those he was leaving behind.

For more than twenty years after leaving Congress, Rhodes continued his involvement by writing columns on energy issues and bipartisanship, both topics he routinely advocated while in Congress. He also practiced law, became an advocate for a single six-year presidential term, and served as international president for Beta Theta Pi, his college fraternity. When Arizona found itself in turmoil due to an ineffective governor, Rhodes prepared to run as a replacement. This act became unnecessary after the state supreme court canceled the election. He received several awards, including the Arizona Heritage Award, given jointly to his wife, and the Congressional Distinguished Service Award, which he received in August 2003, only ten days before his death from chondrosarcoma, a rare cancer.

Biographical information is in Rhodes’s autobiography, written with Dean Smith, John Rhodes: I Was There (1995), along with a biography by J. Brian Smith, John J. Rhodes: Man of the House (2005). His papers are in the archives at Arizona State University, available online at Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 26 Aug. 2003).

Matt Lehmann

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