Senators' farewell speeches often reach the ears of only a stenographer

Several Congress members took to the floor to say goodbye to departing members or to bid farewell to their peers.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:00 AM

After 14 years in the Senate, Sam Brownback had a lot to say to his colleagues as he bid adieu. So the Kansas Republican, retiring to become his state's governor, stood over the lectern at his antique mahogany desk on the Senate floor and began to talk:

"I love this body . . .

"I like to think about the beauty of the country and the ability to come together, because it does happen . . .

"This is a special place and has a special calling."

But as he looked around this special place, Brownback saw hardly a soul. Somewhere, someone was watching on C-SPAN. But inside the storied Senate chamber, none of his dearest colleagues had come to hear him deliver his farewell address. Only Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) were present, but they were huddled in their own conversation.

All of which made the conclusion of Brownback's speech last month so appropriate. He said he signed his desk, one of the final rites of passage. "I did it in pencil," Brownback said. "I figure that all of us will fade with time and that signature will fade with time as well. . . . The place will know us no more."

With that, Brownback yielded the floor. He gathered his papers, pushed in his chair and walked out alone, waving goodbye to the clerks, his only attentive listeners.

For senators, the farewell address is a chance to alert history to how one's tenure should be viewed and to thank one's fellow lawmakers for their collegiality. But the humbling truth is this: Rare is the senator whose colleagues show up to listen, and rarer still are those who are remembered at all.

Remember the recent farewell speeches of Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.)? Didn't think so.

In the annals of the congressional record, a few Senate farewells stand out: John Adams's in 1797, preparing for his inauguration as president, told colleagues that the office of senator should not be a hereditary one, and Jefferson Davis's in 1861, announcing that he would return home to Mississippi, which was joining South Carolina in seceding from the union.

At least one speech that didn't begin as a farewell ended that way. Alben Barkley of Kentucky died of a heart attack in 1956 while delivering an impassioned speech in Lexington, Va., about his love of the Senate.

The other day, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) gave an emotional tribute marking the retirement of his "great friend" Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). After 18 years in office, Bennett lost his party's nomination for a fourth term this year amid a tea party insurgency.

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