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The Senate's Real Leader

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By David S. Broder
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Monday night agreement to avert a showdown vote over judicial filibusters not only spared the Senate from a potentially ruinous clash, but also certified John McCain as the real leader of that body.

In contrast to Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was unable to negotiate a compromise with Minority Leader Harry Reid or hold his Republicans in line to clear the way for all of President Bush's nominees to be confirmed, McCain looks like the man who achieved his objectives.

If -- as many expect -- McCain and Frist find themselves rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, the gap in their performance will be remembered.

To be sure, McCain was only one of 14 senators -- seven from each party -- who forged an agreement to clear three of the roadblocked circuit court nominees at once, shelve two others, and reserve the option of future filibusters only for "exceptional circumstances." And the deal forged in McCain's office probably would not have been possible without the support of such Senate elders as Republican John Warner and Democrat Robert Byrd.

But no one else in the negotiating group has McCain's national stature, and no one else is a likely presidential contender three years from now. So, while such would-be candidates as George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas lined up behind Frist, McCain took the harder road and helped organize the bipartisan effort that averted the looming crisis.

He did that knowing he would incur the wrath of the conservative activists who want no barriers placed before their favorites for possible vacancies on the Supreme Court. But contrary to myth, the heroes of the far right rarely win presidential nominations -- as witness the fate of Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, among others.

Until now McCain has been noted mainly for the battles he has fought -- with sporadic success -- for campaign finance reform and against pork-barrel spending. Those fights have endeared him to special constituencies while antagonizing many of his colleagues. This week he placed himself at the nexus of a debate central to the institutional life of the Senate. This was an ad hoc coalition, forged around one question, but the cadre of supporters he found in both parties is large enough -- if it remains cohesive -- to be a shaping force on many other legislative issues.

The success of the "Gang of 14" was a rare and welcome triumph over the antagonisms that have been so deeply rooted in the political generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when the nation was torn by conflicts over civil rights, women's rights, abortion and, most of all, Vietnam.

Three of McCain's collaborators -- Warner, Byrd and Dan Inouye of Hawaii -- are of the World War II generation, a time of national consensus. Six of them are between 42 and 52, which means they were 16 or younger at the height of the anti-Vietnam protests. They are forerunners of a generation that may provide greater harmony in our politics as its members move into positions of leadership.

Only four of the negotiators -- Republicans Olympia Snowe and Mike DeWine, and Democrats Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson -- were of an age to have been swept up in the turmoil of Vietnam while in their twenties.

McCain himself served in Vietnam and endured 5 1/2 years of captivity and torture in a Hanoi prison camp. But unlike many others who fought in that war or protested against it, such as John Kerry, McCain has always insisted that Vietnam was not the defining experience of his life. Long before he undertook this act of reconciliation within the Senate, he had made peace in his own life with the antiwar protesters of his generation.

Twenty years ago McCain accepted apologies from an activist named David Ifshin when they met at a Washington forum. They formed a friendship. Ifshin, who had gone to Hanoi in 1970 and made an antiwar radio broadcast that was piped into McCain's prison, later became a close friend of and campaign counsel to President Bill Clinton.

When Ifshin died of cancer in 1996, McCain delivered a eulogy at the funeral, saying of Ifshin, "He always felt passionate about his country. He always tried to do justice to others. . . . I learned about courage from David, learned to look for virtue and I learned the futility of looking back in anger."

Those lessons served McCain, the Senate and the country well this week.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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