The US Senate has a well-earned reputation as the “greatest deliberative body on earth.” That reputation however was earned in a bygone era, times of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. Often times in the late 20th Century and early 21st, The Senate has been far from deliberative or courageous. It has in fact been overtly political and an impediment to forward thinking and movement.
The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis by Ira Shapiro chronicles the late 1970’s and the statesmanship and productivity that came with that era in the Senate. The last years before the “Reagan Revolution” poisoned the well permanently and politicized all legislative work, the Senate had a great final bow.
The leading figures of this era, Ted Kennedy, Howard Baker, Jack Javits, Edmund Muskie, Robert Byrd, Scoop Jackson and Bob Dole spanned the political spectrum of ideologies. Kennedy, Muskie and Javits were liberals (though Javits was a Republican – again in this era liberal Republicans like Javits, Oregon’s Mark Hatfield and Maryland’s Charles”Mac” Mathias and conservative Democrats like Mississippi’s John Stennis, Nebraska’s Edward Zorinsky and Virginia’s Independent-Democrat Henry Byrd Jr. still existed in the senate – these were not moderate members. They were people who would have easily fit into the other party’s caucus based on voting record. The last two Republicans of that profile, Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee both eventually became Democrats- the final Democrat like this in the Senate was Richard Shelby who is now a Republican) Byrd an institutionalist serving as Majority Leader, Jackson the hawkish father of the neocon movement whose domestic views were as liberal as Javits’ or Kennedy’s, Dole the traditional conservative who would move to the middle to build consensus and Baker a moderate who as Minority Leader in those days did not have deal with large scale conservative rebellions on every issue (but still did on a few).
Creating an environment where the interests of a nation came before that of either political party or special interest groups was exceedingly difficult at this time. The “new right” movement that would propel Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980 was developing an incredible network of support behind the like Paul Weyrich and others. The Panama Canal treaties were a focal point of the conservatives ire and Baker had a hard time corralling enough Republicans, just enough to pass the treaty. 22 Republicans (including Dole) and 10 Democrats voted no.
This book is a must read for those interested in Senatorial history or the figures that shaped the most recent effective generation of American leaders.