The biggest outlier in this grouping is, of course, Ohio, which has (or had) a vibrant Great Lakes manufacturing district and large cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. But several factors guide these states: large expanses of some of the most rural areas in this country, an emphasis on mining, country music, a high Wal-Mart to Starbucks ratio, and high percentages of ‘American’ ancestry. Pound for pound, this group might have the strongest batch of senators out of any, with many of the all-time heavyweights coming from this region. As the United States’ first frontier, let us explore a bit…
Ohio has a unique place in American history– what began as a frontier state maintained its western characteristics– as late as 1896, McKinley was still being billed as ‘the western candidate.’ Yet, it was also home to many of the nation’s biggest cities– Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown, and so on. During these years, Ohio just spat out mediocre presidents like it was its job– Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, the aforementioned McKinley, William H. Taft, and Warren Harding can all call Ohio home. Since then, Ohio’s fortunes have crumbled and it has become the buckle of the Rust Belt. But what cannot be denied is that Ohio has become the ultimate swing state. No president since Kennedy in 1960 won without winning Ohio, and no Republican candidate since the party’s beginning has ever won the presidency without winning the Buckeye State.
41. Benjamin Wade (Whig, Republican, 1851-1869)
Perhaps I reveal my Yankee prejudices when I say this, but I view Radical Reconstruction as a brief, but glorious epoch in the history of the American South. Alas, it was cut short by a number of frustrating contingencies. Abraham Lincoln was bent on leniency and rehabilitation and at any rate, was killed before he could guide Reconstruction. His successor, Andrew Johnson was a strict constructionist tool, and far too accommodating to the vanquished Bourbons from the southland. Grant was sympathetic to the plight of the freedman, but he was too politically maladroit, and his administration too corrupt, to make very much headway.
A south where former Confederates were barred from holding office, where economic justice for freedmen could be achieved, and where black Americans would enjoy the right to vote in perpetuity, was actually within reach, and it could have happened if Benjamin Wade became president in 1868. As president pro tempore, he would have become president if Andrew Johnson had been found guilty during his impeachment trial.
Wade was present at the creation of the Republican Party, and saw in this fledgling organization an alternative moral force to oppose slave power and open the West to free labor. It is easy to forget, but Abraham Lincoln had immense difficulties with Congress, and Wade was a perpetual thorn in his side, always advocating the tearing down on Southern institutions and bases of power. When Lincoln pocket-vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, a harsh and exacting vision for bringing the South back into the Union, Wade famously sent a lengthy harangue to the New York Times. In short, Wade was the sort of unalloyed radical that makes studying this period of American history so fun. Additionally, as an advocate of women’s suffrage, trade union rights, and soft money, he is the sort of man who sounds very appealing in 2012.
42. Robert A. Taft (Republican, 1939-1953)
If I have learned one thing from teaching political history in a foreign country, it is that the meanings of “conservative” and “liberal” are extremely fluid, and change drastically over time and in different political systems. Taft was one of the most prominent conservatives in senatorial history, but he is of a distinct breed of this philosophy that is sometimes called “paleo-conservative.” He was opposed to most of the New Deal, with a few exceptions such as Social Security and public housing. In foreign policy, Taft opposed intervention, speaking out against the draft as an affront to religious liberty. He was steadfastly against U.S. involvement in WWII until Pearl Harbor. My own personal beef with Taft, though, is his staunch anti-labor stance. Ideologically in league with, and politically indebted to, Ohioan businessmen, Taft engineered the Taft-Hartley Act that kneecapped labor at the zenith of its influence, and since then, has had its hand continually weakened as the hand of owners and CEOs grew stronger. Never a cultural warrior, Taft was more or less a libertarian without the racist newsletters, fanboy crushes on Ayn Rand, fealty to Austrian economists, or adherence to bizarre conspiracy theories.
Because of these stances, Taft is often mis-characterized as an “isolationist.” That’s not exactly true. Taft saw Europe as a train wreck of a continent, that had plunged the U.S. into two wars and two rebuildings that cost his country much in human and financial treasure. He was suspicious of NATO, and at the same time, thought that Cold Warriors rhetoric about the Soviet Union exaggerated the threat. Most famously of all, the opposed the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals for crimes against humanity. This was not because he thought them innocent of wrongdoing, but because he considered the trials ex post facto law– convicting someone of crimes that were not illegal when the crime took place. Turning his gaze from a troubled Europe, he advocated that the U.S. turn its attention to the East– to China, Japan, and Oceania. The parallels to President Obama’s recent “strategic pivot” to the Pacific are not superficial.
Taft tried to emulate his father, and take his ideology to the White House. From 1940 to 1952, Taft made a credible bid for his party’s nomination with substantial support from Midwestern Republicans. And every single time, he was defeated by the Republicans’ more moderate, Eastern Establishment wing– whether to Thomas Dewey, Wendell Willkie, or to Dwight Eisenhower. Perhaps it is just as well. A poor orator whose devotion to avoiding entangling alliances was obsolete by his time, Taft was better left as one man who expressed a particular point of view very well in a body of 100.
Runners-up: Oh, goodness me. John Sherman certainly deserves a place in the top 100; its a shame that I was limited to just two Ohioans. George Pendleton, Stephen Young, and Howard Metzenbaum were also given consideration.
XXII. West Virginia
Almost heaven, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River, country roads. Since its backwater residents split off from the gentile aristocracy that dominated coastal Virginia, West Virginia has succeeded at crafting its own identity, reveling in its Appalachian charm. (Think about this one for a moment– during the first 80 years of our nation’s history, before the split, Virginia and Pennsylvania shared a border!) Still rural, poor, and home to a great many coal miners, West Virginia rewards politicians who bring home the bacon– federal largess for make-work projects and sorely needed infrastructure– while punishing representatives who push for environmental legislation.
43. Henry G. Davis (Democrat, 1871-1883)
Davis was a land speculator and minor official on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad before realizing the connectivity between politics and business success, and ran for office. As a senator, Davis used his influence to get himself a railroad charter to dominate northern West Virginia and exploit its natural resources. An opponent of Reconstruction and a fierce critic of the Grant administration, Davis moved the new state away from its Republican, anti-Southern roots, and it slowly became more Dixie than not. In terms of constituent services, he lobbied for a Department of Agriculture that was realized shortly after he left office. For these efforts, Davis was placed on a presidential ticket twenty years after leaving the Senate. Consisting of an obscure New York judge named Alton Parker and a then-80-year-old Davis, it might very well have been the weakest presidential ticket ever put up by any major party.
44. Robert C. Byrd (Democrat, 1953-2010)
One of the great tragedies in Senate history is that we in the 21st century don’t get a chance to see just how great the men in the 1800s and early 1900s were. We lack a recording of Daniel Webster’s oratory, we can’t watch William Seward on the C-SPAN archives. This won’t be a problem for Robert Byrd, whose career spanned from the dawn of television to the youtube era. There’s Byrd chiding his colleagues for not following procedure, reminding them to refer to each other in the third person. There’s the famous “fie on this Congress” speech for authorizing the war in Iraq. And, of course, there is his heartbreaking reaction to Ted Kennedy’s terminal illness. Collectively, these clips show just how much Byrd revered the Senate, and held it to a high standard. Famously, he gave a small copy of the constitution to every new senator, and his mastery of Senate rules, regulations, and unofficial customs was legendary.
As far as constituent services go, you would be hard pressed to find a senator who did more than Robert C. Byrd for his state. He shamelessly used his place on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund projects in West Virginia. Highways, dams, bridges, schools, all these were diverted to West Virginia (to be fair, the state needs all the help it can get, right?) While it made Byrd legendary, and secured his continual re-election, it also led Citizens Against Taxpayer Waste to name him the “Emperor Palpatine of Pork.” While Byrd’s respect for Senate institutions rightly garners praise, he also justified, to some extent, cynicism toward the federal government.
Notoriously, Byrd started out in the staunch segregationist wing of his party. He aided attempts to block the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, arguing from a state’s rights perspective that made little sense when juxtaposed to his relentless pursuit of federal dollars for his home state. But Byrd evolved, as both a legislator, and a human being, during his almost half-century in the Senate. From this, he built a second career, as the Democratic Majority Leader during a period that one upcoming history book considers to be the last competent Senate during the late 1970s. He recanted his earlier racism and his votes against civil rights. Rather than an abstract admission of remorse, his voting record actually reflected these changes in his outlook. There were still hiccups along the way– most notoriously when he used the phrase “white niggers” to describe young whites enamored of ghetto culture. But to paraphrase MLK Jr., the moral arc of Robert Byrd’s career was long, but it bent toward justice.
Kentucky was the 15th state to join the Union, the second after Vermont to join the original 13. More than most states in the region, Kentucky vacillated politically. It wavered over whether to join the Confederacy, and it very well might have, pending a few crucial Confederate victories. Abraham Lincoln was spot-on when he said, “I would hope that God is on my side, but I must have Kentucky on my side.” Since then, Kentucky generally votes for whichever candidate in national elections in the most Southern. Its votes went to Bush and Reagan, but also Carter and Clinton. Although you’d never guess it by Obama’s poor performance in the state in 2008 and Rand Paul’s election to the Senate in 2010, Kentucky also has the fourth highest percentage of registered Democrats in the nation.
45. Henry Clay (Democratic-Republican, National Republican, Whig, 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, 1849-1852)
Here he is, ladies and gentlemen– the man you’ve all been waiting for. Many historians’ pick for the greatest senator of all time (and probably mine as well), we have the Great Compromiser, Harry of the West, the Young Commoner. If you haven’t stopped reading this blog, then you probably know enough about American history to be aware of Clay’s great contributions to American polity. He engineered the Missouri Compromise that set guidelines and limits to the expansion of slavery in the West. He was a founder of the Whig Party to crystallize the amorphous and badly disorganized anti-Jacksonian sentiment in Congress. This coalition capitalized on banking and commercial interests, drew from fear of presidential tyranny, and benefited from evangelical enthusiasm. As a swansong, Clay cobbled together a problematic 1850 Compromise that kept the Union intact, but ultimately retrenched both Southern Planters and Northern abolitionist forces, none of whom were happy with it.
Henry Clay was not a saint, and he represents a very different typology of senator than a dignified Brahman like Nelson Aldrich or Henry Cabot Lodge. He owned slaves, even if his compromises checked the spread of slavery writ large. His views on Native Americans were inhumane by even 19th century standards. He gambled. He drank. He dueled. He wooed beautiful women (again, beautiful by 19th century standards.) A nimble scoundrel, one of his colleagues said of him, “like a mackerel in the moonlight, he shines and stinks at the same time.”
In Clay’s long string of successes and flops, he never stopped believing that compromise was possible (even if he sometimes took a grandstanding role in making compromise, and even if his handling of issues led to a crisis point in the first place.) His vision of the United States– one nation of many parts, connected with internal improvements, self-sustaining through trade and industry,– known to history as The American System, ultimately prevailed. I would argue, and many would join me here, that he was the most significant politician in American history who never got to be president.
46. John Sherman Cooper (Republican, 1946-1949, 1952-1955, 1956-1973)
Cooper is the sort of man who just isn’t well remembered today, and that is a great shame. You might have noticed how odd his dates as a senator are– three different periods of service in a three decade time span. There is actually a good reason for this. These interregnums were caused by his ambassadorial appointments– to East Germany and to India. When not serving in these posts, Cooper was a respected voice on foreign policy in the Senate. When compared to his contemporary, Mr. Taft, Cooper championed an engaged U.S. as an active force in world affairs. Cooper was, significantly, one of the first Republican voices to oppose the war in Vietnam. With Frank Church, he successfully castrated Nixon’s incursions into Cambodia by cutting off their funding. He also strongly advocated for civil rights, an act of courage for a quasi-southern senator. Whether at home or abroad, John Sherman Cooper was truly, as one of his biographers named him, The Global Kentuckian.
Runners-up: Richard Mentor Johnson, John Crittenden, Alban Barkley, and Mitch McConnell were all, in their own way, strong runners-up. Barkley was one of the great New Deal senators, Crittenden made a noble attempt to prevent civil war at the last second, McConnell showed persistence in directing opposition to the Obama program, and Richard Mentor Johnson killed Tecumseh. Kentucky’s bench is pretty deep.
Home to the Grand Ole’ Opry, the TVA, and Graceland, Tennessee is down home to the extreme. Both Southern and Appalachian with a heavy mix of significant cities, its two best senators reflect its character well.
47. Andrew Johnson (Democrat, 1857-1862, 1875)
There aren’t very many presidents on this list of great senators; only the two Johnsons, Andrew and Lyndon, made the cut. Johnson was a terrible president; if I still engaged in the troubling activity of ranking presidents, I would likely put him third from last, with only Coolidge and Nixon doing worse. But I will give Johnson credit for a singular act as a young senator during the crucible of Civil War. When the Confederate States seceded, every single senators representing said states, even those with grave reservations, went home, and were ultimately loyal to the Richmond for the duration of the war. Except one. Andrew Johnson remained in the Senate and dutifully attended its sessions, even if he was no longer able to vote. For the symbolism of this act, Johnson was rewarded with the vice-presidential nomination on the Republicans’ brief 1864 re-branding as the “Union Party.” The rest, as they say, is history.
It was fitting, therefore, that Johnson was elected to the Senate once more in retirement, holding the office for a handful of months before shedding this mortal coil. This doesn’t excuse the other elements of Johnson’s career– he was an ignorant and barely literate tailor, coarse, prejudicial in the extreme against blacks, and often lost his struggle with alcohol. In many respects, he was the anti-Natty Bumpo, embodying the worst elements of the frontier character. But for his paramount loyalty to his country, and his courage in carrying out that loyalty, Andy Johnson deserves a spot on this list.
48. Howard Baker (Republican, 1967-1985)
Some senators can be encapsulated in just one word. Joe McCarthy = anti-communism, John McCain = maverick, Henry Clay = compromise. If I could sum up Baker in one word, I would choose “civility.” In an early show of the South’s shifting political loyalties, Baker, a Republican, was elected from Tennessee in 1966. Baker was a moderate conservative, but like many other members of the Senate in his day, he wanted to be effective and useful to his constituents, rather than ideologically pure. No milquetoast, Baker was effective at corralling votes, and persuading wayward senators, and these factors led to his becoming the Senate Minority Leader (1977-1981) and Senate Majority Leader (1981-1985) after the Republicans took the Senate in 1980.
I am probably being presentist in putting Baker forward as such an exemplar, but I cannot help but be moved by his words: “And if we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don’t like, we would soon stop functioning altogether.”
Runner-up: Al Gore Sr., I think, deserved mad props for being one of only 3 Southern senators to refuse to sign the segregationist Southern Manifesto. Hugh White and the colorful Estes Kefauver were also favorites of mine.
49. Joseph Robinson (Democrat, 1913-1937)
Robinson began his time in the Senate as a loyal Wilsonian Democrat, and ended it as a loyal New Deal Democrat. During Wilson’s presidency, Robinson took part in passing some of the key legislation from that era: the child labor laws, the war declaration against Germany, and arming merchant ships during the period of submarine warfare. By the time Roosevelt became president, Robinson was a senate fixture, and used his seniority and favorable reputation to push for essential relief efforts, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, and the Home Owners Loan Act. While he could overplay his hand at times– he sponsored U.S. participation in the World Court, and acceded to FDR’s court-packing plan– he was one of the most efficient and successful senators of his day.
Equally significantly, Robinson helped rehabilitate the South, long condemned to a kind of marginal place in national politics since Reconstruction. As the Catholic New Yorker Alfred E. Smith’s running mate in the 1928 election, he was the first Southerner on a major party ticket since the Civil War, and the first Arkansan on a ticket ever. This was helped by Robinson’s religious tolerance. In 1928 he famously stood up to the KKK and anti-Catholic Alabama senator Tom Heflin, an important act of conscience in the nativist 1920s.
50. J. William Fulbright (Democrat, 1945-1974)
Like many of the Southern statesmen of his day, Fulbright lent his considerable parliamentary acumen to preventing a civil rights bill; he signed the Southern Manifesto eagerly, and did not vote for a single civil rights bill until 1970, near the twilight of his career. Yet, there is much that is praiseworthy in Fulbright’s three decades in the Senate. The Fulbright Scholars program allowed for international exchange and the promotion of peace; hundreds of thousands of young men and women have now taken part in it. Later in his career, he led the charge against Nixon Supreme Court nominee G. Harold Carswell, mindful of Carswell’s retrenched defense of segregation. He defended the Truman Doctrine to check Soviet expansion, while later promoting the detente policy that improved relations between the two superpowers.
Fulbright is also, of course, famous for serving as the Foreign Relations chair during the height of the long Vietnam War. If we look at the Vietnam War, Fulbright’s views on the matter represented a kind of fulcrum. As long as he wanted to continue LBJ’s policies, the war would continue unabated and only a shrill group of senators– the McGoverns, the McCarthys, the Morses, the Gruenings, would voice their opposition. When Fulbright finally perceived the futility of American engagement in Indochina, it was only a matter of time before the war would be scaled down. To prevent the overreach both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon demonstrated in conducting the war, Fulbright spearheaded the War Powers Act, which stymied the president’s ability to deploy troops indefinitely without a declaration of war or congressional approval.
Runner-up: Dale Bumpers was a strong senator, and emblematic of the post-racial Southern moderates that came to the fore in 1970– similar to Jimmy Carter in Georgia, Terry Sanford in North Carolina, and Reuben Askew in Florida.
Conclusion: Stay tuned, because my favorite group of senators is coming up next– the industrial Midwest, which includes Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.