American politics has so many facets that even a subject as narrow as the U.S. Senate must give way to an eclectic approach. To explain in one work everything one should know about Capitol Hill would be at best cumbersome and at worst impossible. So what is needed is a series of "clips" taken from the broader documentary of U.S. politics. An adequate number of these would significantly advance our understanding of how politicians operate and why they operate the way they do.
Samuel Shaffer was for 30 years Newsweek's congressional correspondent. From the perspective of members of the Senate, he was one of the "gargoyles" leaning over the press gallery rail attempting to see through the fog of rhetoric that rises from the Senate floor. Shaffer no doubt could fill a much thicker book with the history that he has observed over three decades, but the selection published is well done and holds one's interest to the end. It also confirms the belief that our politics is at the same time tragic and funny.
When President Eisenhower nominated "Engine Charlie" Wilson as his defense secretary in 1953, Wilson owned $2.5 million in General Motors stock. He was due to receive $625,000 and an additional 1,800 shares of GM stock as a bonus over the next five years. Although members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who were to hear and vote on his confirmation, were eager to give Ike his cabinet as quickly as possible, Wilson did not make it easy for them. He told an incredulous committee that he had only briefly considered disposing of his stock but that taxes on the sale would make it unprofitable for him and so he rejected that alternative.
Sen. Lyndon Johnson then asked Wilson whether or not he would act on a contract, as defense secretary, if it involved General Motors. That was the straight line for Wilson's famous statement, "Of course I would act on the contract. anything that's good for General Motors would be good for America, and anything that's good for America would be good for General Motors."
But, as Shaffer demonstrates, the question of Wilson's stock ownership might have been dealt with more quickly and on a basis more favorable to Wilson had he not made another, nearly fatal error in judgement. He underestimated the size of the egos sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee, consistently addressing the 15 members as "you men." His troubles mounted in direct proportion to his lack of deference to the committee. He ultimately surrendered, unconditionally, to the committee and disposed of all his stock and bonus options. Lyndon Johnson later wondered aloud whether Wilson would have had so much trouble "if he hadn't kept calling us 'you men.'"
Students of Congress will find in Shaffer's book both a reminder of actions long since forgotten and precious new details which were important influences on the course of events. I had forgotten, for example, that Sen. J. William Fulbright courageously refused to vote to fund Joe McCarthy's witch hunts at a time when it was considered treasonous even to question him. Sen. Gaylord Nelson voted against funding for the Vietnam war and was one of only two senators to denounce President Ford's bungled rescue of the Mayaguez in 1975.
If President Carter's campaign strategists ever thought Ted Kennedy might cave in once he got behind, they would have benefited from Shaffer's study of Kennedy's protracted, but sure-fire-loser, fight confirm one Francis X. Morrissey as a federal judge because it was, Kennedy then confided, "the only thing my father ever asked of me."
An even more recent example of Kennedy's tenacity has been available for public view had anyone been interested. that has been his annual, unpublicized effort to reform and make more equitable tax legislation as it comes through the Senate. The tax bill is often referred to by the press corps as "Christmas tree" legislation, describing its appearance after everyone's favorite loophole is attached. But for a small group of tax reformers, led by Kennedy and his staff of tax experts, it is known as Sen. Russell Long's effort to be fair to the Fortune 500. It is one thing for a politician to lose consistently if he is being rewarded by a great deal of press attention. But Kennedy barely received honorable mention during all the years he stood virtually alone on the Senate floor, hammerng away, mostly without success, at the favoritism in Long's tax legislation. From this, one could have easily predicted his staying power in a losing presidential campaign.
The flavor and color of the Senate's personalities take on vibrancy with Shaffer's Newsweek-style prose, from the intensity and passion of senators Wayne Morse and Lyndon Johnson to the hilarious description of Elliot Richardson volunteering all the minute details of his lifetime record of traffic violations to a flabbergasted Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Try as they might to change the subject, Richardson persisted with his driving record until even friendly members of the committee were forced to listen, and to appear to ask intelligent questions, until he was finished.
Richardson is my image of a committed public official -- a survivor -- bored with private life to the point that he cares about little else but public service. In the episode Shaffer describes, the hapless Richardson was answering, without the committee's prior knowledge, a yet-to-be-released column by Drew Pearson charging committee chairman Fulbright with trying to shove through Richardson's confirmation as undersecretary of state.
I remember Richardson first as a responsive secretary of HEW. I called him to complain that the Indian Health Service was watching unconcerned while Indian families in western South Dakota were forced to use water standing in potholes for drinking and washing. I asked that the Indian Health Service drill a series of wells promised by the agency over the previous two years. The wells were drilled within a week of my call to Richardson.
By the time I had started my Senate term in 1973, I had worked myself into a rage over Richard Nixon, his carpet bombing of North Vietnam and his impoundment of funds. Although I had called for, in a Senate speech, a cutoff of funds for the White House staff. I was hearing a lot of talk in the cloakroom from Senate liberals that we should begin by refusing to confirm all of Nixon's cabinet nominees. I thought we had a deal, so being first to answer the roll call, I voted a loud "NO" on Nixon's first nomination of the year. It was Elliot Richardson, appointed as secretary of defense.
I walked off the floor after my vote only to learn that mine was the sole negative vote on his nomination. It was too late to change and too embarrassing to explain so I told those journalists who called that I intended to vote against all of Nixon's appointments until he decided to behave in a legal manner. I felt somewhat like the golfer who was seen by his friend wearing a girdle in the locker room. When asked how long he'd been wearing the girdle, he replied, "Ever since my wife found it in the back seat of my car."
After the initial flurry was over, I learned that a "no" vote on any administration's appointment was safer, because almost without exception the nominee would take some action that would justify the negative vote.
Perhaps this book is so interesting because Shaffer has written about 30 years of a Senate whose members were driven by something other than their daily reading of the public-opinion polls. In fact, if one were to stand them up alongside today's new crop of Sanforized, pre-shrunk senators, the conclusion is inescapable. By and large, they don't make them like they used to.