The Last Great Senate
Did the Senate really used to be a grand institution? Ira Shapiro argues that it was – and not that long ago.
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Shapiro’s reading of why events unfolded the way they did in the late-1970s relies heavily on the personalities of the Senators involved; he implies that the Senate worked better 30 years ago because it boasted better senators. “The Last Senate” is full of sketches of the leading senators of the era. These include lions like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Ed Muskie, Warren Magnuson, and Jacob Javits; emerged leaders like Bob Dole, Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, and Ted Kennedy; and new arrivals like Joe Biden and Jesse Helms.Skip to next paragraph
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Shapiro reveres these men and heaps praise upon them. Senators are described by turns as “near-brilliant,” “valiant,” “fair-minded” and “handsome.” When the revised Panama Canal treaty flounders due to the Carter administration’s diplomatic bungling, Shapiro writes, “The senators would have to devise a solution” as if they were white knights riding to the nation’s rescue.
The biggest limitation of “The Last Great Senate” is that it overstates the agency of the Senate and its constitutive members when it comes to directing historical events.
At one point Shapiro praises the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for “working in the best tradition of the Senate, delving deeply into important and emotional issues, educating the public and itself.” He seems to suggest that if only today’s senators were less inclined to demagogue than we’d get more done.
There’s certainly some truth to that, but it also strikes me as describing a world in which the tail wags the dog. George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M, has written, “Presidents cannot reliably persuade the public to support their policies” and “are unlikely to change public opinion.” And given that it’s a monumental task to shape public opinion from the bully pulpit, it would seem well nigh impossible to do the same from the well of the Senate.
The one cultural current that Shapiro does touch on is the mushrooming of ideological conservatism, which hangs over the book like a dread shadow. He gestures towards the anti-tax, anti-government ideology that grew in earnest in the Republican Party following the passing of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 and he describes Jesse Helms’ election to the Senate in 1972 as an event that crystallized the importance of social issues (and particularly opposition to abortion) to the GOP.
He also argues that Helms’ arrival in the Senate ushered in the slash-and-burn political tactics that are so unfortunately familiar to Senate watchers today. “He quickly began making the Senate consider one controversial amendment after another,” Shapiro writes. “He virtually never won, but winning was not the point. He wanted to force senators to make controversial votes, making them vulnerable to attack at home, and he wanted to disrupt the Senate’s bipartisan comity.”
There is no mistaking that the Senate operated differently 30 years ago than it did today and Shapiro persuasively shows that most of that change has been for the worse. As a result, his book begs the questions: Is the root of that change in our leaders or is it in us? And can it be reversed?