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Brazilla Reece left his mark on GOP politics

Robert Houk • Aug 12, 2018 at 4:55 PM

I was reminded recently of the legacy of an area congressman with an unusual first name.

Johnson County native B. Carroll Reece never answered to his given first name, Brazilla, which came from a forebear who fought in the War of 1812. Maybe that was a mistake.

Brazilla is a name found in the Old Testament, and from what I’ve learned about Congressman Reece, he was definitely an Old Testament kind of guy.

Instead, Reece — who helped elect a cantankerous Republican-controlled Congress that was frequently at odds with Democratic President Harry S. Truman — began his signature modestly with the initial B.

It’s still in use today, as in the B. Carroll Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University. Sadly, the U.S. Postal Service dropped the initial from the designation for its Carroll Reece Post Office, 1100 N. State of Franklin Road, Johnson City.

There have been several congressmen from the 1st District who have made history (including his long-serving protégée Jimmy Quillen), but none stood on the national political stage quite the way Reece did in the years following World War II. Reece, who died in office in 1961, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1920.

He lost one re-election attempt to Oscar Lovette in 1932 before returning to Congress two years later. He also left his seat in the House in 1946 to become the national chairman of the Republican Party, and alongside his friend and political soul mate, U.S. Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, led the conservative wing of the GOP to success.

Reece, who was born and raised in old town Butler, was the first Southerner to head the National Republican Party since Reconstruction. Like Sen. Taft, Reece was an strong isolationist and staunch opponent of communism.

Following his two-year tenure as GOP chairman, Reece defeated incumbent Dayton Phillips in 1948 to return to Congress. That was when Haynes Elliott, a World War II veteran who had just graduated from University of Tennessee on the G.I. Bill, went to work for him.

Elliott, who would go on to be a high-ranking U.S. postal official and later an industrial recruiter for Carter County, spent the next seven years learning politics from Reece. He once told me his former boss was one of the “kindest and smartest” men he had ever known.

Reece never drove a car. Instead, he was chauffeured by a staffer (Elliott often had the job, as did his pal Quillen) or his wife, Louise Goff Reece, who was the daughter of a GOP U.S. senator from West Virginia. Meanwhile, his only child — a daughter who was named for her mother — had a pilot’s license and often flew her father to campaign events.

He might have never learned to drive, but it was Reece who taught Elliott, who died in 2012 at age 89, how to navigate the bureaucracy of the federal government. Elliott remembered Reece — who like President Truman was a World War I veteran — as a soft-spoken man who always dressed in a suit and a tie. He never ate bread or butter, and always wore a Purple Heart pin in the lapel of his coat.

And Reece knew politics very well. He also understood his very conservative constituents in Northeast Tennessee. Reece had learned (sometimes painfully) during his career in Congress that while folks in the 1st District didn’t have much regard for government, they nonetheless expected their fair share from Washington, D.C.

He often told Elliot: “An informed constituency is an angry constituency.”

During his latter years in Congress, Reece controlled all Republican patronage in Tennessee. That meant he had a say in who was hired as a postmaster, a federal judge or any other federal job in the state.

Reece was fiercely loyal to his friends. That’s one of the reasons he served as campaign manager for Taft’s futile final bid for the White House in 1952. Elliott was with Reece and Taft at the Republican National Convention in Chicago that year when Dwight D. Eisenhower won the nomination for president.

Two years later, Reece helped Elliott get the job of regional director of the U.S. Post Office Department in Memphis.

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