The second-to-last edition of the All-Star Senate, this will cover five states I categorize as the American southwest: Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. All are characterized by expansive territory, massive mineral wealth and natural resources, and a legacy that mixes populism and big-oil conservatism in strange and often contradictory ways. All these states were Democratic New Deal strongholds earlier in the century, but became reliably Republican in the Nixon years. Today, this is (with the exception of Oklahoma and Texas) one of the greatest swing-regions in the country, and as the Hispanic population, especially, expands, it will become even more swing-y, and even more crucial a component of a winning party’s electoral map.
Oh, and if you are new to the blog, let me send you to an earlier post where I explain what all this fuss is about.
You might not guess it, but Oklahoma’s early years as a state were marked by a staggering populism, as exemplified by #81, Thomas Gore. It is only a more recent phenomena, and chiefly the product of the state’s burgeoning oil industry, that Oklahoma took a sharp turn toward more economically conservative candidates. Oil does that.
81. Thomas Gore (Democrat, 1907-1921, 1931-1937)
Gore is an ancestor not of Al Gore, as one might suspect, but the famous novelist Gore Vidal. Legally blind, Gore overcame his disability to become a beloved senator famous for his maverick status in the Senate. A crusader for more active involvement in politics from the everyman, Gore ardently opposed a military draft on the grounds that it took away the nobility of an all-volunteer army. At other times, he spoke in favor of a Federal Reserve and women’s suffrage. He also proposed making any declaration of war by Congress subject to popular referendum, a stance that cost him the support of Woodrow Wilson. Yet, despite this populist streak, he stood opposed to dole measures and social safety nets; he cast the only vote in the Senate against the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal.
82. Robert Kerr (Democrat, 1949-1963)
When one senator asked Jim Stennis, the longtime senator from Mississippi, who was the most effective senator he had seen firsthand, Stennis reflexively answered “Kerr” in his distinct southern drawl. Despite not really having any traditional seats of authority in the Senate, Kerr was great at accumulating power, by chairing significant money-dispensing subcommittees like Rivers and Harbors, responsible for internal improvements. But Kerr is most well-known for his advocacy for the oil industry– something of a conflict of interest, given his leadership of the Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee Oil operations.
Runner-up: Nobody remembers him, but Fred Harris was one of my favorite senators from one of my favorite eras, a populist advocate of “the little guy.” He was Hubert Humphrey’s second choice, after Ed Muskie, for a running mate in 1968. When he lost the Democratic presidential primaries in 1976, he joked that the little guys couldn’t reach the lever in the voting booth.
Praise Jesus, this is the last Confederate state I have to deal with in this ridiculous exercise. Insufferably independent and saturated with braggadocio, Texas has been a thorn in the American side for the past 160 years. An independent nation for a short period of time (which they never let us forget), Texas has been sent a wide number of Speakers of the House to Washington, but also a number of surprisingly diverse senators. Here are two of the best.
83. Morris Sheppard (Democrat, 1913-1941)
As senator, Sheppard affixed his name to an act, and eventually a constitutional amendment, that prohibited the sale of alcohol within the United States. We can all agree this was, of course, a bad idea. But at the time, it had a degree of merit– it would cut down on spousal abuse, engender more productive citizens, promote thrift, etc. It didn’t work out that way, not by a long-shot, but Sheppard’s advocacy was the product of a unique, though rather odd, coalition of high-minded urban progressives with provincial fundamentalist yokels.
Outside of keeping Americans out of the sauce, Sheppard sponsored the Maternity and Infant Protection Act, making midwife training, and the spread of hygiene and health literature more widespread, in order to curb maternal and infant mortality– one of the few progressive pieces of legislation to make it out of the 1920s. Another of his pet projects was fostering federally-guaranteed credit unions, an idea that looks better and better over time, as Americans try and keep their money away from the large banks that precipitated the recent financial crisis.
84. Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat, 1949-1961)
You know you are dealing with a rather influential senator when one of their biographies is titled Master of the Senate. Lyndon Johnson lived and breathed politics like few others in American history. He relished campaigning (and in his first Senate run even had a helicopter take him from town to town with dramatic staged landings, where he threw his hat out of the chopper). An ardent supporter of the New Deal in his youth, Johnson was driven to provide for many of the nation’s neediest constituencies, reinforced by his own exposure to poverty as a schoolteacher for largely poor Hispanic students. When catapulted to Senate Majority Leader in 1953, Johnson hit his stride. There, he perfected the wrangling, threatening, cajoling, manipulating, and bargaining which made him one of the most effective senators of all time. His most storied technique was using his massive 6’3″ frame to lean in on someone, remembered by posterity as “the Johnson treatment.” With Eisenhower, a Republican, in the White House, LBJ ratcheted up an impressive series of bipartisan domestic accomplishments, and his overpowering effectiveness is still discussed in hushed tones on Capital Hill.
Runner-up: Sam Houston should have been on this list. For most other states, he would have easily made the cut for a state’s two best senators. My argument for leaving him off, I guess, is that even though Houston has higher name recognition, the others were ultimately more effective and had a deeper long-term impact. Houston’s contributions to American politics, in other words, were most prominent outside of the Senate’s chambers.
XLIII. New Mexico:
One of the final states to enter the Union, New Mexico is one of the first majority-minority states in the country. It is no surprise, then, that it has contributed some of the most important Hispanic political leaders to our country– from (#85) Dennis Chavez in the 1930s to Bill Richardson in the 1990s, to its current governor, Susan Martinez, who might well end up as the vice-presidential pick. It is also one of the most heavily-contested swing states in the nation.
85. Dennis Chavez (Democrat, 1935-1962)
Senator during much of the New Deal, Chavez directed resources to the electrification of the region. Mindful of his Hispanic heritage, he promoted the Good Neighbor policy with Latin America, in hopes of reversing decades of poisoned relationships between that region and his home country. In a similar vein, he was Puerto Rico’s strongest advocate in the Senate, lacking its own voting representatives in Congress. Before the civil rights movement caught national fire, Chavez lobbied for stricter laws regarding employment discrimination. Sadly, he died only a few years before the landmark legislation in this vein during the 1960s.
86. Pete Domenici (Republican, 1973-2009)
The longest-serving senator in New Mexico’s history, Domenici was known as a financial hawk. The only two balanced budgets created in the last 50 years took place under his chairmanship of the Budget Committee. He also devised plans, which were ultimately thwarted, for a clean energy bank, a consortium that would have promoted the innovation of clean energy sources. As his daughter suffered from schizophrenia, Domenici’s last major act as senator was the Mental Health Parity bill, which required insurance companies to cover and treat mental illnesses in the same way as physical maladies. Accordingly, the companies could not charge higher co-pays or limit how long one could stay in a hospital.
Home of the Grand Canyon, Arizona has taken more pride in its Western qualities than any other state I can think of. Dry and hot, its politicians tend to be prickly, cantankerous shoot-from-the-hip types.
87. Carl Hayden (Democrat, 1927-1969)
Hayden was a pioneer of Arizona politics, representing the state in the House when it entered the union, and serving in the Senate almost long enough to see Richard Nixon inaugurated. In this capacity, Hayden was probably the single greatest advocate for using the Federal government to improve the infrastructure and economic development of the West. (As I’ve said elsewhere in my All Star Senate write-ups, this somewhat belies the West’s mythic self-reliance.) Water treaties, highways, the Grand Coulee Dam…you name it, and chances are, Carl Hayden was behind it.
More than this, Carl Hayden, one of the longest-serving members of all time, took it upon himself to be a guardian of Senate tradition, even when it contradicted his own political preferences. Although personally in favor of civil rights, he refused to vote for cloture against the Southern filibusterers, feeling that senators ought to be able to speak and debate without being cut off.
88. Barry Goldwater (Republican, 1953-1965, 1969-1987)
I briefly considered leaving Goldwater off the list on the grounds that his actual legislative record is a little thin when juxtaposed to his fame and high name recognition. Ultimately, though, Goldwater is one of the most important senators of the last century. If we view the Senate as a place where great ideas are debated and different ideologies are given voice, as opposed to simply a legislature voting on laws, then Goldwater’s place is assured. And at any rate, Goldwater’s motive was to prevent most legislation anyway.
As many of you probably know, Barry Goldwater and his boosters inaugurated the modern conservative movement. It changed its geographic epicenter from the Midwest (consider how Robert Taft was the paradigmatic conservative in the 1940s) to the southwest and the Sun Belt. Goldwater’s genius was in moving conservatism out of the country clubs and into the streets, making it a grassroots movement drawing on ordinary citizens whose interest in maintaining a status quo was bolstered by the postwar prosperity and the flight to homogeneous suburbs. (It is no mistake that when he ran for president in 1964, his base of support was Orange County, CA.) In short, before Goldwater, there was widespread bipartisan agreement on keeping the New Deal reforms, maintaining a strong presence in the United Nations, keeping a robust progressive income tax structure, and containing communism to its present borders rather than actively challenging it where it already stood. After Goldwater, none of these were certain any longer. Wishing to cut, rather than simply stall, the size of government, wishing to extend American power and interests abroad, and stressing personal liberty over social responsibility, elements of both the Republicans and Libertarians today can trace a clear lineage through Barry.
Surprisingly, many on the Left hold a certain soft spot in their hearts for Goldwater. In his later years, he vociferously opposed the Christian Right as an affront to personal liberty, once saying that “every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass,” and even supported gays serving openly in the military (“they don’t have to be straight, they just have to shoot straight.”) I see their point, but these same libertarian instincts led Goldwater to oppose the Civil Rights Act on the ground that it infringed on one’s constitutional right to associate or sell or buy from or offer education to whomever one wishes. Personally upright, egalitarian, and even charitable, Goldwater’s leave-well-enough-alone approach failed to understand the darker elements of human nature encapsulated in the old Latin proverb homo hominus lupus, man is wolf to man.
For those of you interested in Goldwater’s career, I highly recommend Rick Perlstein’s tome, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the Liberal Consensus.
Runner-up: They say that college is about three choices– sleep, studying, and your social life, and you can only pick two. Similarly, Arizona was a maddening choice between Hayden, Goldwater, and John McCain, and I could only pick two. I wrestled with every permutation before settling on Hayden and AuH2O– I mean, you have the father of the modern West, and the father of modern conservatism to contend with. But McCain is a significant senator who neatly fit the archetype of the southwestern maverick, even if he did cultivate this reputation to gain media favor and increase his presidential stock. Originally a conscientious critic of pork barrel spending and a great champion of campaign finance reform, McCain grew crustier and followed the party line more often after losing his last shot at the presidency in 2008. Ernest McFarland, who at one time was Senate Majority Leader, was a distant fourth on the list.
Admitted to the union during Lincoln’s administration, Nevada was, for decades on end, an insignificant and underpopulated state, dominated by silver mining interests and suffering from woefully poor infrastructure. It’s character changed rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s as the city of Las Vegas changed the state’s nature overnight to one of tourism and service industries (some services more, shall we say, pleasurable than others.) It boomed in population in the last 15 years, but now faces some of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the country. Whither the Silver State?
89. William M. Stewart (Republican/Silver Republican, 1864-1875, 1887-1905)
Stewart enjoyed a long career in Nevada politics; he was one of the first two senators chosen to represent the state, entering office during Lincoln’s presidency and leaving his final term during Theodore Roosevelt’s. Like many Republicans of the 1860s, a racially egalitarian character defined Stewart and he is given the lion’s share of credit for the 15th amendment to the constitution, which prevented the states from having overt bans to voting rights on the basis of color or race. Given Nevada’s lucrative silver mines, Stewart worked hard to open up more land for mining and lobbied to re-monitize silver in the 1880s. This was just, as luck would have it, during the period where populist candidates like James Weaver and William Jennings Bryan took up the issue in hopes of triggering inflation. Yet, Stewart was also part-scoundrel, and was accused at various points in his career of bribing judges, being paid by the Central Pacific Railroad to support their interests, and selling a worthless mine to a set of English investors.
90. Pat McCarrann (Democrat, 1933-1954)
McCarrann had two significant long-term contributions that elevate him to all-star status. The first is his single-minded pursuit of Nevada’s interests in the Senate. He fought relentlessly to keep Nevada’s silver in American coinage. He attracted industry and military bases to Nevada. Yet, he seized a virtual monopoly on his state’s federal appointments, due to the tradition of senatorial courtesy, whereby a president is required to run his choices by the state’s senators. McCarrann used these appointees and all but compelled them to campaign for him when he was up for re-election.
The second aspect of his career that keeps McCarrann well-known to posterity is his equally single-minded anticommunism. His McCarrann Internal Security act required registration of Communist Party members, although it was never enacted due to legal challenges. Its sister, the McCarrann-Walter Act restricted entry of aliens into the U.S. who were potential subversives. Essentially Joe McCarthy’s waterboy, this has rightly damaged McCarrann’s historical reputation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that McCarrann is more responsible than anyone, even McCarthy, for the national security state that governed our approach to the world, and our approach to ourselves, during the early Cold War.
Runners-up: Harry Reid is at times comically ineffective, yet he did push through a health care mandate and sweeping reform of the industry, something even legends like Mike Mansfield and LBJ couldn’t pull off. Paul Laxalt, meanwhile, is a key 1980s conservative and an important Reagan ally.