NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

April 6, 2013

Remembering the U.S. Senate that was

WASHINGTON — What if they had a Senate race and nobody ran?

Not as fanciful as you think. It’s only April and already seven lawmakers have announced they won’t run again in elections still 18 months away. Almost certainly more will join them. Last year, 10 senators shied away from running.

Hardly anyone wants to be in the world’s most exclusive club — it’s actually called that, though many describe it as the cave of winds. Especially the men and women who are in it now.

Of all the institutions in American life, the Senate once seemed the sturdiest. Fortified with rules written by Thomas Jefferson, animated by an 18th-century Enlightenment outlook, protected by a generous sense of tenure, it had charm and stability and seemed impervious to change.

Within its walls, time stood still, in part because the traditions of the Senate defied time, because the rules of the Senate suspended time, because time could not dim the history — from Webster and Calhoun to Baker, Dole and three Kennedys — that was made within those walls.

“I had such respect for the institution itself and the very large figures who inhabited it, many of whom I had admired from afar,” says former Sen. Gary W. Hart, a Colorado Democrat who served from 1975 to 1987. “Then, not one time in 12 years did I enter the chamber without being keenly aware that I was inheriting national history and making it at the same time.”

All that was true and may be true again. But it is not true now, with senators abandoning the chamber like passengers fleeing an ocean liner on fire. No one today would agree with Gladstone’s assessment that the Senate was “the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics.”

Senators from another time regard their years in the chamber as among the richest, most rewarding in their lives, and almost universally they speak wistfully, nostalgically, almost romantically, about their time there. Yet these days the Senate is a wretched place.

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