I am not in the habit of writing book reviews for this column; the only other one was Aug. 3, 2005, “Schools take heed,” a suggestion that students read “1776” by David McCullough as a lesson in the founding of our great democracy. What changed my mind for another “suggestion” is the continuing squabble in Washington between two warring factions: Democrats and Republicans.
I have found myself continually mystified as to why they can’t agree and move on to resolve issues. What comes to mind is the fact that no one seems to be in control. There was a time, not that long ago, when there was control. The author, Ira Shapiro, presents that picture in his new book, “The Last Great Senate,” in which a great cast of characters in the U.S. Senate are noted: Howard Baker, Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, Fritz Hollings, Ed Brooke, Birch Bayh, Patrick Moynihan, George McGovern, Abe Ribicoff, Hubert Humphrey, Bill Proxmire, Lowell Weicker, Walter Mondale, Bill Bradley, Nancy Kassebaum, Scoop Jackson, John Chafee, Frank Church, John Glenn, Phil Hart, Dan Inouye, Robert Byrd, Ted Stevens, Jesse Helms, John Danforth, Jake Javitz, William Fulbright, Margaret Chase Smith.
The author makes excellent comparisons with the men and women who met then and today’s crop of also-rans when he states, “It was a different time. Issues were taken on their merits and faced, no matter how tough they were.” There was still a number of legislators in the Senate who had served their country in WWII, among them: Paul Douglas, Bob Dole, who lost the use of one arm in battle, Dan Inouye totally lost an arm and George McGovern, who completed 38 bombing missions over Europe, but never mentioned his service record whole running for re-election to the Senate or for the presidency on two occasions. What brought them together to get a job done? It was the TASK for which they were elected: to accomplish what they said they would do, not just idle rhetoric; so unlike today’s politicians.
Just when did the last great Senate serve, when did it end and why? Its final years were 1976-1980; that was its zenith. The men and women who served had been elected years earlier, but this was their “finest hour.” They showed courage and statesmanship on many occasions. Bob Dole was cantankerous, but totally focused on the TASK. It may seem strange to many today, but Republican Dole and many of his mates would have drinks and dinner with their Democratic opponents; the accomplishment of the TASK wasn’t personal as it is today. For example, Mitch McConnell, the present Senate Minority Leader, has publicly stated his TASK is to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
What did the last greats accomplish in their run-up to 1980? They enabled legislation on civil rights, they brought the nation back from the dark days of Watergate, attacked the premises of the Vietnam War, battled efforts to turn the Supreme Court to the right, conducted an extraordinary investigation into the abuses of the nation’s intelligence agencies, spearheaded new environmental and consumer protection and expanded food stamps and nutritional programs, plus many more activities than any other Senate in history had accomplished.
So what happened after 1980 that some of the great senators abdicated their positions, people like Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, who said in his retirement speech,”Even at a time of enormous challenge, the people’s business is not getting done. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much narrow ideology and not enough problem solving.” Olympia Snow, Republican of Maine, said in 2011 that she and many of her colleagues had stopped performing their principal function, saying, “We have become miniaturized.” Steven LaTourette, Republican from Ohio, announced his retirement July 31. Increasingly outspoken over the confrontational tone of his party, he also blasted Washington’s “toxic partisanship.”
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was, seemingly, the “tipping point” that changed the political environment from that day to the present, according to the author. The “New Right” emerged with the National Political Action Committee (NCPAC) leading the way. The target was liberals, with Newt Gingrich at the forefront. The election saw Democrats losing 12 seats in the Senate, giving Republicans a 58-46 majority and in control for the first time since 1955. On May 3, 1980, Abe Ribicoff, D-N.Y., announced he would not run for re-election, stating, “The Senate has begun to change, there were few statesmen left.” What was the catalyst for this change in the political climate?
On Nov. 4, 1979, militant Islam began the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, and holding prisoners for 444 days, time enough to doom Jimmy Carter’s presidency and ensure Ronald Reagan’s election. Shapiro states, “The year 1979 had been a brutal year: declining success against roaring inflation, energy shock, and (quality) foreign auto competition. The election of Reagan in 1980 was followed by a further lurch to the right 1990-1996 that would make Democrats and many Republicans long for the days of Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s relative moderation, pragmatism and willingness to make deals across party lines.” The aisle between the parties in Congress was a line that no one crossed; it was the in-house Berlin Wall.
Shapiro’s epilogue is important reading for all who wish for progress. “The increasing vitriolic political culture fueled by a 24-hour news clock, the endless pressure to raise money, the proliferation of lobbyists and demanding organized interests are all well known and take their toll. But all these factors make it more essential that our country has a Senate of men and women who bring wisdom, judgment, experience, and independence to their work along with an understanding that the Senate must be able to take collective action in the national interest.” AMEN!
If a Civics 100 lesson were ever required of our legislators, one need only recognize this fact of life from The New York Times, Sept. 19, announcing that Congress will be leaving Washington two days hence and not return until after the election, leaving behind a staggering pile of bills. The paper stated, “The 110th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the “do-nothing Congress.” Partisanship has resulted in a failure or responsibility for good government and both sides are to blame.
Robert D. Campbell, an essayist who lives in Newburyport, believes that a sense of humor is essential.