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

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.

Hatch spoke fondly of Bennett, with his 77-year-old comrade sitting behind him on an empty Senate floor and a stenographer nearby transcribing the remarks for the record.

"Bob Bennett is a wise counselor," Hatch said. "He is a truly honest man. He cares not only for the people he represented but everybody in this country and many people throughout the world."

Bennett rose to say: "My wife has said, by virtue of our retirement from the Senate, it is a little like going to your own funeral. You are hearing all of the eulogies, but you are still alive."

There were no visible tears. The two Utahans hugged, looked at their watches and shuffled out through different doors. Such a hasty goodbye, but they're on the clock. And Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was waiting to make an argument to C-SPAN viewers about passing the New START treaty.

Rarely have so many farewells occurred in such a short span. Sixteen senators and nearly 100 representatives will have had their swan songs before Congress recesses for the holidays. Some are retiring, others were swept from office at the polls and a handful, like Burris and Kaufman, have seen their temporary appointments come to an abrupt end.

It is a sign of the times that many of these moments are unfolding in empty or nearly empty chambers. Lawmakers generally come to their chambers only when votes are called or when they are giving their own speeches, but they rarely watch colleagues give theirs. Sometimes they catch snippets on their office televisions or read the published transcripts, but usually they are preoccupied with committee hearings, office meetings, fundraisers, media interviews and myriad other commitments that overwhelm the modern congressman's schedule.

Lawmakers are not required to give a farewell speech, but many do, especially the long-serving ones. If ever they had something to say to their colleagues, and to the country, this is the time.

"They don't take them lightly," said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian. "This is an important moment, and they want to come back to sometimes set the record straight and sometimes to say the last thoughts they have about the way they wish things would develop in the future."

Such was the case with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who in his valedictory address took on the role of graybeard, passing on his wisdom after 30 years in office. He warned his younger Democratic colleagues to resist the temptation to change Senate rules to keep the minority party from filibustering.

Dodd alerted the media and colleagues days in advance when he would give his farewell, at 4 p.m. Tuesday. And the senator stepped onto the floor just on time. Although many of his colleagues trickled in late, they did show up, and they rose in hearty applause to offer a rare moment of bipartisan harmony.

Minutes earlier, Dodd was behind the polished desk in his stately office, the scent of freshly cut pine garland in the air, as he edited his speech with a ballpoint pen. Then he put on his suit jacket, hopped aboard the underground subway to the Capitol, and entered the chamber to see 100 friends, family and former staffers waiting in the gallery, including his wife, Jackie Marie Clegg, and two young daughters, Grace and Christina.

"Over the past two centuries, some 1,900 men and women have shared the privilege of serving in this body," Dodd said. "Each of us has been granted a temporary, fleeting moment in which to indulge either our political ambition and ideological agenda or, alternatively, to rise to the challenge and make a constructive mark on our history."

"My moment is now at an end."

Reaching that end can be trying. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he is delaying his goodbye speech until the last possible moment. After 18 years in the Senate, and 12 years before that in the House, he is retiring on his own terms but still finding it hard to leave.

"My feeling is this term ends January 2nd, and it's like a race," Dorgan said in an interview. "You try to run through the tape with all the energy you've got."

Several retiring lawmakers have used their speeches to lament the hyper-partisanship that at times creates gridlock in Washington. They appealed for better days of working together - "E pluribus unum, out of many, one," Dodd said - seeming to hope that history somehow forgets that it was during their tenures when the partisan divide deepened.

Compromise seemed more common a few years ago. Remember McCain-Feingold, the 2002 landmark bipartisan campaign finance reform bill? Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) does, and he took to the floor this week to pay tribute to his friend and fellow maverick outlier from across the aisle, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who was defeated in the November rout.

"The Senate will be a much poorer place without Russ Feingold in it," McCain said.

"Russ Feingold, every day and in every way, had the courage of his convictions," he added. "And though I am quite a few years older than Russ and have served in this body longer than he has, I confess I have always felt he was my superior in that cardinal virtue."

The 2008 GOP presidential nominee choked up a few times, not that his colleagues were there to see it - not even his friend Russ Feingold.

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