See biographies by A. Champagne (1984), D. B. Hardemane and D. C. Bacon (1987); study by B. Mooney (1971).
On September 16, 1940, at the age of 58, Rayburn became Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. His career as Speaker was interrupted only twice: 1947–1948 and 1953–1954, when Republicans controlled the House. During that time, Rayburn served as Minority Leader.
Rayburn grew up in abject poverty, and would champion the interests of the poor once in office. He was a close friend and mentor of Lyndon B. Johnson and knew Johnson's father Sam Ealy Johnson, from their days in the Texas State Legislature. Rayburn was instrumental to LBJ's ascent to power, particularly his unusual and rapid rise to the position of Minority Leader even though at the time, Johnson had been in the Senate for a mere four years. Johnson also owed his subsequent elevation to Majority Leader to Rayburn. Like Johnson, Rayburn did not sign a Southern Manifesto.
Rayburn, though a menacing and powerful presence on the House floor, was incredibly shy outside of work. He had married once, to Metze Jones, sister of Texas Congressman Marvin Jones and Rayburn's colleague, but the marriage ended quickly and no one really ever knew why. Biographer D.B. Hardeman guessed that Rayburn's work schedule and long bachelorhood, combined with the couple's differing views on alcohol contributed to the rift. The court's divorce file in Bonham, Texas, could never be located, and Rayburn avoided speaking of his brief marriage. One of his greatest, most painful regrets was that he did not have a son, or as he put it in Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, "a towheaded boy to take fishing."
In shaping legislation, Rayburn preferred working quietly in the background to being in the public spotlight. As Speaker, he won a reputation for fairness and integrity. He refused to accept bribery in the form of gifts or money from lobbyists. He only said, "I am not for sale," and walked away. In his years in Congress, Rayburn always insisted on paying his own expenses, even going so far as to pay for his own travel expenses when inspecting the Panama Canal when his committee was considering legislation concerning it, rather than exercising his right to have the government pay for it. When he died, his personal savings only totaled $15,000 and most of his holdings were in his family ranch.
Rayburn was well known among his colleagues for his after business hours "Board of Education" meetings in hideaway offices in the House. During these off-the-record sessions, the Speaker and powerful committee chairmen would gather for poker, bourbon, and a frank discussion of politics. Rayburn alone determined who received an invitation to these gatherings; to be invited to a "Board of Education" gathering was a high honor.
He coined the term "Sun Belt" while strongly supporting the construction of Route 66. It originally ran south from Chicago, through Oklahoma, and then turned westward from Texas to New Mexico and Arizona before ending at the beach in Santa Monica, California. Arguing in favor of the project, he stated famously that America absolutely must connect "the Frost Belt with the Sun Belt."
Rayburn died of pancreatic cancer in 1961 at the age of seventy-nine and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. By the time of his death, he had served as Speaker for twice as long as any of his predecessors.