Having finished the farm states, we turn our gaze to the Mountain West, Big Sky country, defined here as Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. These were all sites of Populism and the free coinage of Silver, but are today Republican-leaning but diverse. You have more or less libertarian states of Idaho and Wyoming, a fledgling Vermont-in-the-Rockies in Colorado, and a sometimes-disturbing virtual theocracy in the state of Utah. They are also, more than anything else, very sparsely populated– at a whopping 7 congressional districts, Colorado is the largest concentration of people in the lot.
While today Idaho is one of the most conservative states in the union, it was not always so– in fact, my two choices are among the most progressive voices from their respective eras. These two figures have, in the words of a very different Idaho senator, a “wide stance” indeed.
71. William E. Borah (Republican, 1907-1940):
Borah spent over 30 years in the Senate being an aggravating, individualistic, contrarian thorn in the side of seven different presidents. Michael Sandel wrote in Democracy’s Discontent that by the 1930s, the prevailing philosophy in the U.S. went from civic republicanism to Keynesian liberalism (I owe this insight, by the way, to Kevin Murphy’s fantastic history and movie blog, Ghost in the Machine.) In other words, it went from a world of citizen-as-producer (think of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer) to citizen-as-consumer (think of the make-work programs and public spending that characterized the New Deal.)
Borah was a key figure in this transition. He spoke out against the Wilsonian sedition acts and civil liberties crackdowns during World War I, but by the same token, he saw in many New Deal measures a threat to local self-government at the hands of a federal leviathan. He is often characterized as an isolationist. Recently, Bush administration officials cited Borah’s quote, “if only I had been able to talk to Hitler…” as an example of foreign policy naivety, although this quote comes secondhand and is almost certainly apocryphal. If Borah seems like a libertarian, that is only a half truth. He remained committed to civic virtue, of binding oneself in loyalty to one’s nation, in ways that are at odds with the triumphalist individualism of Ron Paul supporters today.
As an aside, Borah had a longstanding extramarital affair with Alice Roosevelt Longworth– Teddy’s daughter. Let me reiterate that– the man risked having an irate Teddy Roosevelt come after him for violating his eldest daughter. That, my friends, takes chutzpah.
72. Frank F. Church (Democrat, 1957-1981):
Church began his career as a reluctant environmentalist. He sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act, a cornerstone of Great Society which set aside 9 million acres as pristine wilderness. It declared that these were areas where mankind did not tread, and where mankind must not dwell permanently. Towards the end of his career, he put his efforts behind the River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest national wilderness area in the country outside of Alaska.
Later in his career, Church was key in another kind of conservation, the conservation of national character. He privately wrangled with LBJ over Vietnam behind the scenes, and eventually became an outspoken opponent. His Church-Cooper Amendment served to cut off Nixon’s extension of the Vietnam War, ending funding for incursions into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. The Case-Church Amendment in 1973 went even further, ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam outright. These were critical laws, and while McGovern and Gene McCarthy were key early voices of opposition to Vietnam, Church did the maneuvering and legislating that actually ended the conflict. In the aftermath of J. Edgar Hoover’s tyrannical 50-year rule of domestic surveillance, the eponymous Church Committee was a necessary audit into the FBI and CIA’s activities, and never again were these organizations allowed the tremendous carte blanche that they enjoyed in the early Cold War.
Unfortunately, Church’s national ambitions were left unfulfilled– he entered the 1976 Democratic primaries too late and too underfunded to make waves, and while he made McGovern and Carter’s short lists for the running-mate spot, he ultimately was not asked. Regrettably, Church lost his Senate seat, as did so many other Democrats, in the 1980 elections, and died four years later.
Runner-up: Glen Taylor, a singing cowboy-cum-senator, courageously joined Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential ticket, espousing an unalloyed progressive platform, including desegregation and civil rights. They even touted these views in the South, where Taylor was routinely attacked by irate mobs.
“Big Sky,” Montana is the fourth largest state in the country, a massive region that nonetheless only has enough people to send one guy to the House of Representatives. Barely a swing state, it generally votes Republican in presidential elections and sends Democrats to the Senate.
73. Burton K. Wheeler (Democrat, 1923-1947)
Burton Wheeler made a name for himself as a young district attorney and then governor of Montana, succeeded despite a torrent of opposition from the state’s company-owned newspapers. Burton and a few others like him, particularly LaFollette, kept the flame of progressivism alive in the Coolidge-dominated 1920s, and indeed, he ran as LaFollette’s running mate in his 1924 third-party candidacy. He was committed to busting monopolies, securing a more equitable distribution of wealth within the bounds of the constitution, and ending imperialist gestures in the Caribbean and Asia.
Wheeler was deeply skeptical of U.S. entry into World War II, seeing foreign actors, directors and producers in Hollywood as infiltrating American opinion, and getting the public itching for a fight. He eagerly joined the isolationist America First group, and spoke out against the Lend Lease Act as a step toward war. Subsequent events made this all look rather silly in hindsight, but after Wilson’s transparent attempts to create a war state in the 1910s, such opposition made far more sense in the context of the 1930s.
74. Mike Mansfield (Democrat, 1953-1977)
When Lyndon Johnson acceded to the vice-presidency, he left the task of Senate Majority Leader to Mike Mansfield. This job was both a position of profound power as well as a thanklessly difficult task. The Democrats were an unsustainable mix of Southern Dixiecrats, dyed-in-the-wool liberals, and every shade in between the two. Mansfield had to balance the party’s factions, get Republican votes, and secure passage during the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s. This he did fantastically. Everything from the Civil Rights Act to the vast Great Society legislation happened in part because of his floor management skills.
James Grady, an aide to Mansfield’s Montana colleague Lee Metcalf, noted how Mansfield used the mantra “tap ‘er light.” He learned the phrase in the Montana mines where he worked in his youth, and applied it to politics. If you mine too hard, you risk collapsing the entire mine. If you mine half-heartedly, you fail to get the precious ore you seek. Tap light but firmly; in corralling senators’ votes, in managing 100 different egos, Mansfield brought about some of the greatest legislative achievements of his century. Medicare, Medicaid, the end of de jure segregation, fair housing laws, the early environmental legislation…none of these would have been possible without his light touch.
Dreadfully underpopulated, Wyoming has been sparse, desolate, and wide open since its admission to the union. The first state to
allow acknowledge women’s right to vote, Wyoming has vacillated between somewhat progressive to quite conservative throughout its history.
75. Francis Warren (Republican, 1890-1893, 1895-1929)
One of the first two senators to represent Wyoming, Warren’s two nonconsecutive tenures total almost forty years. Like Hansen (#76), he had deep ties to Wyoming’s cow and sheep-ranching industries, and used his seniority to bolster their fortunes. Most notably, he lobbied aggressively for high tariffs on beef, wool, and hides. He also favored Western development, and a series of irrigation initiatives.
76. Clifford Hansen (Republican, 1967-1978)
Hansen was remembered, even decades later, for being forthright, but also gentle and kind to every last staff member and Capitol Hill worker he encountered. One young Hansen staffer recalled, “if the Senate cafeteria workers found out you worked for Cliff Hansen, you got special treatment.” He was also, however, a continual opponent of federal legislation setting wilderness areas aside, seeing this as a land-grab against Wyoming’s natural resources. So, in a way, despite his warm-hearted character, he also paved the way for the sagebrush rebels, fighting tooth and claw against federal oversight of so much Western land. Yet, Hansen highlights the borderline-hypocrisy of the Mountain West’s “leave us alone” mentality on conservation. Warren, Hansen and a host of other senators from this region aggressively lobbied for federal tariffs and Western development laws, but bristled at the thought of conservation and environmental laws that kept much of their land pristine but under Federal jurisdiction. In other words, they were ideologically opposed to big government, except when they needed massive amounts of government assistance.
An American theocracy, the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints dominates political life in Utah; indeed, one struggles to find “gentiles” as non-Mormons are called, holding statewide office here. The most monolithically Republican state in the union, Utah was also home to a fair number of Democrats at earlier stages in its history. With a high birth rate, high level of income, and a growing number of electoral votes, there’s every indication that Utah will loom ever larger in the foreseeable future.
77. Reed Smoot (Republican, 1903-1933)
Reed Smoot was an influential banker, businessman, and religious leader, belonging to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. With such influence, he easily secured election to the Senate. But Smoot’s first victory as United States senator was simply taking his seat. His election on the heels of Utah’s statehood sparked a contentious four-year battle over whether to admit him to the body. A number of senators led a movement to deny him his seat, on the grounds of persistent rumors that Mormon leaders continued to practice polygamy and as such, he belonged to the leadership of an organization that flouted United States law. After a series of investigations into the church, Smoot finally took his seat in 1907. Smoot’s effortless blend of his entrepreneurial efforts, political officeholding, and religious authority is, to say the least, unsettling. Unflinchingly pro-business, especially his own, he co-sponsored the Hawley-Smoot tariff that almost certainly deepened the impact of the Great Depression and instigated a number of senseless trade wars that prolonged its effects.
78. Orrin Hatch (Republican, 1977-present)
In 1976, a year generally favorable to Democrats, Hatch was elected to the U.S. Senate, unseating incumbent Frank Moss. In a legal sense, Hatch became a kind of Federalist Society guy, obsessed with preserving the Constitution as originally envisioned by the Founders. This has generally led him to a small-government ethos, but occasionally he will break Republican consensus, most notably when he defended the right to build an Islamic-affiliated interfaith center several blocks away from the former World Trade Center site. (Notice how I did not call it the Ground Zero Mosque, as it is neither a mosque nor is it at Ground Zero….) At other times, this leads him to plutocratic conclusions, most notably when he told the press that the very poor weren’t doing enough to eliminate the national debt.
Because of these philosophies, Orrin Hatch became an expert on judicial affairs, so much so that Ronald Reagan appears to have given him serious consideration for the Supreme Court. Now under fire and facing a tough tea party primary challenge, it is easy to forget that Hatch was a dependable and loyal Reaganite conservative throughout virtually all of his career. Yet, courteous to a fault, he rarely resorted to demagoguery, and wracked up a number of friendships across party lines, including Ted Kennedy. As of now, he is one of the Senate’s only remaining links to a more civil and functional time.
At first, I thought that New Jersey and North Carolina had the longest run of weak senators in American history. That ended up not being true, for Colorado soundly beat both for producing vapid, insignificant politicians and sending them to Washington. I mean, for pity’s sake, I almost put Gary Hart on this list, that’s how bad it was. Perhaps my insistence on exactly 2 people per state was flawed, if I have to forgo Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles Sumner, Robert Hayne, Sam Houston, etc., to make room for these turkeys.
79. Henry Teller (Republican, 1876-1882, 1885-1909)
Teller, a good friend of Ulysses S. Grant, was one of the first two senators that Colorado selected, and to this day remains the longest-serving senator from the Centennial State. In those days, silver mining was Colorado’s lifeblood, and Teller was deeply tied to the state’s silver-mining and business interests, in the manner of most politicians of the day. So, when he supported William Jennings Bryan in 1896, crossing party lines, he did not do so out of any populist leanings in his character. Rather, Bryan’s platform of free coinage of silver would have been a financial boon to Teller and his cronies. He is most well known for the Teller Amendment that bears his name, a repudiation of imperial interest in Cuba following the Spanish-American War. This was ultimately subsumed by the Platt Amendment, making Teller’s contribution a laudable, but ultimately ineffectual, check against America’s expansion into the Caribbean.
80. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Democrat, Republican, 1993-2005)
Campbell seemed a counter-cultural figure at first. Part Native American Indian, he was known for his Harley-loving, hippie-ish ways. At other points in his life, he represented the U.S. on its Olympic judo team, and designed jewelry. He is, to the best of my knowledge, the only U.S. senator inducted into the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame. That’s all I can say about him; his record is that thin.