Everybody leaves the world's most exclusive club sometime, and last night the tribute at the National Building Museum was for a man who had left it most reluctantly -- Democrat Tom Daschle, tossed out of the Senate in November by the good people of South Dakota after an expensive and contentious race.
"Tom wasn't wild about this, to tell you the truth," said his wife, Linda Daschle, an airline industry lobbyist, as she surveyed the room of about 400 guests, including nearly all 44 Democratic senators. "He wasn't about looking back. But so many of his Senate family wanted to say thank you."
And the former minority leader, during the cocktail hour, smiled and shook hands and accepted claps on the back and, Daschle said, "enjoyed the moment." He doesn't know yet what to do with himself after 26 years in office. "I'm taking my time" in deciding, he said, "which is what everybody told me to do."
It felt like a melancholy affair, a party with the fight knocked out of it, Rod Stewart on tape scratching his way through a desultory "The Way You Look Tonight." The way they looked last night was sad and meek. What Might Have Been hung over the room, above the murmur of polite chatter of vacations Daschle could take and the integrity he had displayed.
Did the junior senator from New York think that everybody there was wishing Election 2004 had gone a different way?
"Oh, boy, totally," said Hillary Clinton. "I still haven't absorbed it." (Don't even raise that eyebrow: She's "totally focused on New York," okay?)
The tallest of the dark suits, John Kerry, could be seen from nearly every vantage point in the cavernous hall. John Edwards, who gave up his Senate seat to be Kerry's running mate, worked the room, doing that thing where he reached out with one hand toward the next supplicant while still clasping the last one who had buttonholed him. A waiter said to his colleague, "That's the guy who ran for vice president."
"I honestly wish I were not here tonight, that this dinner were not happening," said Nevada's Harry Reid, the Senate's new minority leader, when he took the stage to herald his predecessor for his "calm, deliberate demeanor" in "times of prosperity and times that were really tough."
Elected to the Senate from the House in 1986, Daschle, now 57, was credited with unifying fractious Democrats in the mid-1990s and pushing a more centrist philosophy. Under his leadership, the Senate passed campaign finance revisions. He helped save the presidency of Bill Clinton by engineering acquittal at the impeachment trial, a feat that Democrats heralded and some conservatives never forgave.
Those speaking last night preferred to speak of his work for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, for farmers and Native Americans and seniors.
There were flashes of resistance. Maryland's Barbara Mikulski looked around at the strong showing of her Senate colleagues and pronounced them "an army of opposition."
There were fragments of strategy. New York's Chuck Schumer leaned in toward Daschle and whispered that Mikulski's fellow senator, Paul Sarbanes, "is really thinking of you, and Maryland . . . " He went inaudible. (Hmmm. A South Dakotan running for senator in the Free State? It worked for a native Illinoisan who moved to New York.) One consultant said to another, "I have a plan for rebranding ourselves in the South. I'll send you a position paper."
Ted Kennedy mustered some of his thunder to borrow from Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Old Ironsides," saying "Old Tom" was a "champion for working folk who will take their crap no more." And he meant the Republicans, of course. And Max Cleland, whom party lore lionizes as the first Democratic senator to fall to Republican character assassination, in 2002, also delivered a poem that was hardly gracious. "This message to those who attack you," he warned; "you reap what you sow, so watch your back. We're still following the leader, and you can all go to hell."
In a stunning display of how frayed civility has become in the legislative body that makes a big deal over its decorous protocol, no Republican senators were there to hear Cleland's broadside. None bothered to show up at all. The GOP enmity toward Daschle broke into the open when Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, defied tradition to campaign against Daschle in South Dakota. Then, in November, when Daschle gave his last speech on the Senate floor, only a few Republican senators were even present. Frist walked in after Daschle was finished.
Last night, Daschle made a joke about his changed circumstances.
"I got in the car to come over here tonight, and then a few minutes later, Linda got in the car. We sat there a couple of minutes. Then Linda said, 'If this car is going to get us there, you better get in the driver's seat.' "
He reached for philosophy, not regret, and said, simply, "You make the difference you can." After adding "I love the dreams of the future more than I love the history of the past," Daschle stood onstage surrounded by his "Senate family."
Michigan's Debbie Stabenow whipped off a black cloth that covered a painting of a building renamed for Daschle -- the Senator Thomas A. Daschle Building on Maryland Avenue, headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The DSCC is the very group that failed to keep Daschle around, but everybody got to take home a rendering of the three-story building, with the Capitol in the background, a ghostly presence.