I tend to follow politics and political history in the same way that most people study sports and sports dynasties and pantheons. In a certain light, this makes sense. Both are filled with larger than life figures—baseball has iconic figures like Ruth, Mantle, Jackson, DiMaggio, while the U.S. Senate can boast of Olympians like Clay, Russell, Webster, and LBJ. The rise of the Fantasy Congress has given the “politics-as-sport” junky even more ammo to work with. The site allows you to choose a certain number of Congressmen (so many from each party, so many from leadership, so many veterans of so many years) that cunningly mirrors the restrictions placed on a fantasy league.
Making my way through Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball for the second time, I began to wonder if I could construct a senatorial equivalent of the “Best Fantasy Team of all Time” for baseball, basketball, football, etc. So, I have decided to do something that nobody, to the best of my knowledge has done before. I will put forward my suggestions for the All Star U.S. Senate. I will scour through each state’s history and choose who I believe are its two greatest senators, and reveal my decisions by region (New England, Pacific West, Deep South, etc.) over the next couple weeks- resulting in 100 total. But there have been almost 2,000 senators since the institution first met in 1789. How does one choose from this long list of statesmen? To address the problem, here are my criteria:
1. Legislative Record: To what extent did the senators at hand initiate, vote on, defend, or critique the major issues of the day? What key decisions from their era show their handiwork?
2. Historical Significance and Symbolism: How did the senator contribute to the long-term development of the United States? While Barry Goldwater, for example, didn’t have a terrific record of legislation behind him (partly by being an ideological outlier during much of his tenure), he was also the godfather of the modern conservative movement. That has to count for something. Ditto with someone like Robert LaFollette, whose work helped to usher in the Progressive age. Yet, as a caveat, this refers to their historical significance and symbolism within the context of the Senate. While John Kennedy, Barack Obama, John Glenn and many others are historically significant, it is not chiefly because of their time in Congress.
3. Longevity: The Senate is a body where power and influence are partly products of getting elected and staying elected. Historically (although this is less true nowadays), rookies and journeymen had almost no say in the day to day affairs of legislation. True power came with securing a committee chairmanship, where all pertinent legislation would typically have to go through you in order to carry the day. Longevity alone isn’t enough to get on this list, but it is a useful way to give oneself the tools necessary to become a great senator.
4. Collegiality: Very few appreciate how the Senate has been, historically, an exclusive coterie, an insular club of gentlemen. As we are finding out with the recent gridlock, the Senate runs smoothly in an atmosphere of mutual respect, friendship, courtesy, and cordiality. It collapses into dysfunction if it does not have these qualities.
5. Courage: It isn’t my intention to turn this post into a series of Seneca’s moral lessons on civic virtue, nor to recreate
JFK’s Pierre Salinger’s Profiles in Courage. (And many of his choices are suspect and politically motivated.) Yet, the ability to chart a distinct moral course, and challenge one’s party, or prevailing institutions and philosophies like chattel slavery, McCarthyism or the post-9/11 surveillance state should all be recognized and commemorated here.
1. “Won’t this list be biased, Alex?” I sure hope not. But there are a couple elements that skew the list. First of all, the Senate just wasn’t that good, or at least didn’t produce very memorable or historically significant figures, in the antebellum era and the Gilded Age. Yes, you had the great triumvirate- Clay, Webster, and Calhoun- during that era, but more often than not, state legislatures picked sycophants who would tow the party line, and replaced them if they did not, or if it was someone else’s turn. It can’t be a coincidence that we start getting much more compelling figures with bolder stances, more independent mindsets, and stronger work ethics once the process is democratized and the public at large was allowed to select their own senators during the Progressive Era. So, accordingly, my list will be short on figures from the Founding and the Early Republic and also the Gilded Age, because the quality of senators from those eras was quite low, and its members were in constant flux.
The more immediate question is: won’t an avowed McGovernite come up with a list of largely Progressive figures. There are a number of great liberal senators from the 60s and 70s that will show up here. Partly, this is because it is my conclusion as a historian that this is an unrecognized Silver Age of the U.S. Senate, when it is stacked to the brim with visionary figures who put together legislation that often had a salutary effect on the lives of their constituents. For this reason, I am morally compelled to give props to senators from this era (both Democrats and Republicans) that championed or voted for, say, the Civil Rights Act, or the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, or the early environmental legislation, and disinclined to vote for the senators (both Democrats and Republicans) who did not. Hey, it’s not my fault that progressives are usually right. But that doesn’t mean that this list will be devoid of influential conservative figures. Look for Barry Goldwater, Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch, Bob Dole, and a number of others to surface on this list.
2. Isn’t this unfair? Two from every state regardless of what they’ve contributed? Some states have a long record of significant senators that makes choosing only two a heartbreaking decision. I’ll give you this one. Consider Massachusetts as an example. It’s been a state since the very beginning and in almost 250 years, it has given us John Quincy Adams, Caleb Strong, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, Edward Everett, George Hoar, Henry Cabot Lodge the elder, Henry Cabot Lodge the younger, John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry among many, many other senators. In comparison, Alaska has been a state in the union for barely 50 years and has had under a dozen senators total, none of whom were especially good at their jobs. Fair? No, but alas, the Senate is all about equality among the states, and not numerical fairness or proportionality.
With all this in mind, look for the first installment of the All Star Senate to begin soon!