Harold Royce Gross – Sergeant, United States Army Member of Congress

The Eternal Flamethrower.(H.R. Gross)
Author/s: Bill Kauffman Issue: November 1999

The date: December 2, 1963. The place: the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The event: the single most heroically curmudgeonly act in the history of Congress.

Only ten days have passed since President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Washington is draped in crepe; Mary McGrory is predicting “We'll never laugh again”; Kennedy impressionist Vaughn Meader is frantically trying to learn the LBJ drawl.

The House, heavy with mourning, is quickly disposing of grim business: emergency appropriations for JFK's funeral expenses. Iowa Republican H.R. Gross rises. He is a wisp of a man, 5′ 6″ and 135 pounds, and he “wears loud neckties and a permanently worried expression,” according to Life. His self-proclaimed mission is “to save this country from national bankruptcy.”

Gross has already groused about the “around the clock” Secret Service protection for Widow Kennedy and her two children, but now he achieves the ne plus ultra of niggardliness: He protests that the American taxpayer should not be forced to foot the gas bill for the eternal flame at JFK's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Kennedy's obsequies and remembrance should be done “with restraint and in good taste,” Gross observes, implying that the eternal flame meets neither standard. House Speaker John W. McCormack immediately shuts off debate. The bill passes by voice vote, and the legend of H. R. Gross grows larger.

The American taxpayer never had a more colorfully ornery friend than Iowa farmboy Harold Royce Gross, who looked as though he ought to be playing the puckered parsimonious accountant pouring cold water on Jimmy Stewart's dreams in a Frank Capra movie.

Gross was a Des Moines and Waterloo reporter and newscaster billed as “the man with the fastest tongue in radio.” Among his employers was WHO, which had a slower-tongued baseball announcer named Reagan. But Dutch went west and Gross went east, after upsetting an incumbent Republican in a 1948 primary in which the antiwar Gross was vilified as a “radical leftist.” He stalked congressional spendthrifts for 13 terms until his retirement in 1975.

As a freshman he voted against the Marshall Plan; a quarter-century later he opposed the bombing of Cambodia because it cost too much. In between he railed against the space program, foreign aid, congressional junkets, and every post office and bridge he could find. (Sometimes his targets merged: “Well, even if we don't get to the moon first, we'll be there first with foreign aid” he cracked.) His only regret was voting “present” instead of “no” on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Gross voted against the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations so often that Minority Leader Gerald Ford remarked, “There are three parties in the House: Democrats, Republicans, and H. R. Gross.”

He detested ostentatious wealth (“the mink-coat set”) and the celebrity-encrusted Kennedy administration in particular. He objected to the provision of military drivers for Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford at the inaugural ball; he hooted that White House police were guarding Caroline's ponies “Macaroni” and “Spaghetti.” (The latter was actually named Tex.)

H.R. Gross was the bane of House leaders, constantly objecting to unanimous-consent requests and greeting each new piece of legislation by blurting, “Just what's in this turkey?” or “How much will this boondoggle cost?” His choleric barbs could fill a book, though he would no doubt object to the expense of its publication. An overseas trip by a Truman underling was no mere junket but “a lush travel orgy.” The Peace Corps was “a haven for draft dodgers.” A proposed national aquarium was “a glorified fish pond.”

Gross felt himself an utter alien in Washington. He was a Mason and an Elk and a husband to his wife Hazel for 58 years, until his death in 1987. (Hazel died in March 1999.) He avoided all parties and receptions and spent his evenings poring over government documents and watching wrestling on TV. When criticized for living in a cloister, he replied, “I just might take a trip one of these days, but it'll be at my own expense.”

H.R. Gross was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, without an eternal flame. No monument commemorates the flinty Iowan. But perhaps a private subscription should be taken up so that the aphorism that adorned a wall of his congressional office might be chiseled in the chamber he once patrolled so vigilantly: “There is always free cheese in a mousetrap.”

GROSS, Harold Royce, a Representative from Iowa; born in Arispe, Union County, Iowa, June 30, 1899; educated in the rural schools; served with the First Iowa Field Artillery in the Mexican border campaign in 1916; during the First World War served in the United States Army, with overseas service, 1917-1919; attended Iowa State College and the University of Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia; newspaper reporter and editor for various newspapers 1921-1935; radio news commentator 1935-1948; delegate, Republican National Convention, 1968; elected as a Republican to the Eighty-first and to the twelve succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1949-January 3, 1975); was not a candidate for reelection in 1974 to the Ninety-fourth Congress; was a resident of Arlington, Va., until his death in Washington, D.C., on September 22, 1987; interment in Arlington National Cemetery.

From a contemporary press report

Hazel E. Gross, Congressman's Widow

Hazel E. Gross, 97, the widow of Rep. H.R. Gross (R-Iowa) who was a past treasurer of the Congressional Wives Club, died March 18, 1999 at the Ingleside at Rock Creek Presbyterian Retirement Center in Washington. She had a heart ailment.

Mrs. Gross, who lived in the retirement center, was an Iowa native. She served as secretary to the Iowa attorney general from 1923 to 1933.

She was married to H.R. Gross from 1929 until the 13-term congressman's death in 1987. Mrs. Gross was a member of Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church and the Order of the Eastern Star.

Survivors include two sons, Phil, of McLean, and Alan, of Alexandria; a grandson; and a great-granddaughter.

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