"If you have some kind of trademark, like unruly hair, people get to recognize you."
Everett McKinlsy Dirksen
JANUARY 18, 1977. CIRCLE the date. The setting is the chamber of the United States Senate, a lackluster theater-in-the-round during recent years; but something special is about to happen. The new kid in the Democratic bloc has risen to address the chair.
With the merest flick of his hand across an unruly forelock, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who has been preceded to Capitol Hill by a reputation as a public figure who wants people to recognize him, is about to make his first public statement in the august forum where Webster, Clay and Calhoun - and more recently Huey Long, Wayne Morse, Ev Dirksen - once cleared their throats for action.
Moynihan: a compulsive show-stealer, a throwback to the old rococo school of oratory. The master phrase-turner who added "benign neglect" to the lexicon of American political controversy. A self-declared antielitist who, nevertheless, has been known to quote Lactantius in public utterances. The American ambassador to the United Nations who, eschewing the better part of diplomacy for candor, spoke of that august forum as an institution "which, if it did not exist, would be impossible to invent."
Once, it seemed, the United States Senate overflowed with such colorful controversialists. No longer. These days the members of the world's greatest deliberative body save their best verbal shots for the banquet circuit, where oratorical rockets can pay off in rewards other than audience applause. But Moynihan, apparently, is different. He is a working rhetorician with no need to squirrel away his explosive nouns and verbs. They seem to come to him in clusters, the legendary Gaelic gift for the felicitous or, as the occasion demands, pungent phrase.
Does his arrival on Capitol Hill augur a revivial of the good old days of high drama and fresh wit in the Senate? We may hope. I mean, have you paid a visit to the august forum lately? If not, think of Webster, Clay, et al., while digesting the following standard Senate input regarding one of the country's foremost domestic issues:
"In a more generic sense," Senator Harrison Schmitt is telling his colleagues, "I am just attempting to point out when we evaluate the energy reorganization bill, as well as other proposals that may come from the administration, that we do so with efficiency being a prime consideration and a clear definition of responsibility being a prime consideration, and that we understand what our oversight and legislative responsibilities are clearly in Congress so that maybe, just maybe, we can start to see a decrease in our costs of government and an increase in our government's effectiveness . . ."
No wonder Ed Zorinski spent only six weeks in the place before he got bored and wanted to go back home. Is this, after all, the place where not too long ago Ev Dirksen - a senator known never to say "Happy Birthday" when "Blessed Natal Anniversary" would do the job - roamed? Where Sam Ervin, before moving on to American Express commercials, offered daily renditions of his Ol' Country Boy act?Where Barry Goldwater's righteous wrath, now vestured in elder statesmanship, held forth* Where a reliably unpredictable South and West, which now send us technocrats who learned their popular catechism at Harvard and Yale, once offered up Wild Bills, Fightin' Bobs, Cotton Eds and assorted other string-tied spell binders?
O tempora, etc.! Let me tell you, to watch and listen to the Senate in action these days is a devastating experience for anyone over the age of forty who was nurtured on the legends of Webster, Clay and Calhoun and, more important, grew up when Hollywood was making Jimmy Stewart movies featuring high drama in the Senate well, not Redford-Lancaster flicks involving low intrigue in the Oval Office or Pentagon.
Those were the days when senators were perceived as larger-than-life characters, center stage; while White House aides (members of the Hamilton Jordan-Jody Powell generation will find this hard to believe) were all, according to script, passionately anonymous memorandum-shufflers. Certainly not superstar material for anyone's Style section.
Conceded, the first time I actually caught the old Senate act, live and in person, the chamber's finest theatrical moments were already a matter of history. But even during the late 1950s, though in slow artistic decline, the Senate could still on occasion offer a spectator the liveliest show in the Federal Triangle. So long as a Dirksen, Bob Kerr or Wayne Morse was in the vicinity, any given colloquy on any given day could become a forensic cavalry charge, all blades, lances, personal style.
There was, for example, the session when - during the course of a routine difference of opinion - Morse, the curmudgeon from Oregon, suddenly blasted Homer Capehart, his rotund Republican antagonist of the moment, as "a rancid tub of ignorance."
Rancid tub of ignorance? It was a spectator-stunner. The issue under discussion has long since been forgotten. But the phrase lingers. No speechwriter could have invented it. Spontaneous and unhomogenized, it was a metaphor loaded, for the senator who dared utter it, with the bad public-image bacillie that frighten today's mealy-mouthed rhetoricians into reaching for their PR man's antiseptic gargle water.
Yet Morse just tossed it off. An apology was, of course, demanded, under Senate Rule something-or-other. Morse sneered. Or rather, gave what from the gallery appeared to be a sneer. With no re-Morse forthcoming, Capehart searched his tub for a comeback line, while the chair called for order. A few squeamish senators seemed aghast at the exchange. But the galleries ate it up. It was what we had come to see and hear. Wasn't Wayne Morse, after all, the senator who had broken Huey Long's - or was it Jimmy Stewart's - record for continous hours of solo filibustering?
Whatever Morse's squeamish colleagues might have been thinking, the exchange was in the finest tradition of the United States Senate, as those traditions were developed in what we now call the Golden Age of Oratory. Indeed, personal invective was very much a part of Senate colloquy when the world's greatest deliberative body was just getting its act together in the first half of the nineteenth century. Hear the eloquent Webster on the subject, warning a colleague that he is one verbal rocket away from being answered in kind:
"Sir, I shall not allow myself, on this occasion, I hope on no occasion, to be betrayed into any loss of temper; but, if provoked, as I trust I never shall be, into crimination and recrimination, the honorable member may, perhaps, find, that, in that contest, there will be blows to take as well as blows to give; that others can state comparisons as significant, at least, as his own, and that his impunity may, perhaps, demand of him whatever powers of taunt and sarcasm he may possess. I commend him to a prudent husbandry of his resources."
Of Clay it was said that he too was "essentially a popular orator [who] appealed to the galleries by introducing personalities in his speeches and he delighted the common man by giving his opponents a tongue lashing." As, for example, the day in the Senate chamber when he charged then-Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, who claimed to have marched to the defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812, with telling less than the full story concerning his military exploits.
Mr. Buchanan: True, I was not in any engagement, as the British had retreated before I got there.
Mr. Clay: You marched to Baltimore, though?
Mr. Buchanan: Yes, sir.
Mr. Clay: Armed and equipped?
Mr. Clay: But the British had retreated before you arrived?
Mr. Buchanan: Yes.
Mr. Clay: Will the senator from Pennsylvania be good enough to inform us whether the British retreated in consequence of his valiantly marching to the relief of Baltimore, or whether he marched to the relief of Baltimore in consquence of the British already having retreated?
Now those were the golden-throated, silver-toungued days . . .
If Clay and Webster ever met their match in gallery appeal, however, it was in the person of Virginia's John Randolph, who might properly be called America's first political showman. Randolph, in fact, was the man who introduced the filibuster to the Senate. He brought it over from the House which, in those early years of the Republic, was still a wieldy, lively forum for public debate.
In his book, The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians, David Leon Chandler offers a report rendered by Hezekiah Niles, a prominent editor of that day, of one of Randolph's classic filibusters. Matinee in the chamber, May 2, 1826:
"I had been told that the bankrupt bill was before the Senate - but, during the time stated, [Randolph] never, to the best of my recollection, mentioned, or even remotely alluded to it, or any of its parts, in any manner whatsoever.
"The chamber was nearly empty, the gallery nearly full, and the stolid Calhoun patiently listened from his throne as Randolph rambled on with careless ease. He gave out a plan for the national bank . . . He then said something about Unitarians and made a dash at the administration.
"He spoke of the Bible, and expressed his disgust at what are called 'family Bibles,' though he thought no family safe without a Bible - but not an American edition. Those published by the Stationers Company of London ought only or chiefly to have authority, except those from the presses of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He said those corporations would be fined ten thousands pounds sterling should they leave the word 'not' out of the seventh commandment [adultery], 'however convenient it might be to some or agreeable to others.' Randolph looked directly at certain members and half-turned himself around to the ladies in the gallery.
"He said he never bought an American edition of any book - he had no faith in their accuracy. From the Bible he passed to Shakespeare, drubbing someone soundly for publishing a 'family Shakespeare.' He next jumped to the American 'Protestant Episcopal Church,' and disavowed all connection with it, declaring that he belonged to the Church of Old England; he had been baptized 'by a man regularly authorized by the bishop of London who had laid his hands upon him' (laying his own hands on the head of the gentleman next to him). Then he quoted from the service.
"He spoke about wine - it was often mentioned in the Bible and he approved of drinking it - if in a gentlemanly way - at the table - 'not in the closet - not in the closet, sir'; but as to whiskey, he demanded that anyone show him the word in the Bible . . . Then he spoke of his land at Roanoke, saying he had it by a royal grant. He then spoke of a song about the men of Kent, saying Kent had never been conquered by William the Norman."
Though certainly not around when Randolph was titillating the ladies in the galleries, Sam Bledsoe is among those elder Washington press statesman who remember the Senate chamber in its last great fluorescent burst of artistic creativity. During the 1920s and '30s, Bledsoe, as an Associated Press reporter, had a choice gallery seat. He can still tick off the names and their legends. And from the retrospect of today's Senate chamber cast, they read like the political equivalent of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's bevy of superstars. Call the roll:
William Borah (according to Bledsoe, "one of the great Senate orators, he always filled the galleries") and Texas' Tom Connally; Clyde Hoey (the last of the swallowtail dressers) and Fightin' Bob LaFollette, Sr. (who held the record for filibustering with assists from colleagues); Burton K. Wheeler and Wild Bill Langer; Hiram Johnson and Alben Barkley (the raconteur's raconteur); George Norris and the young fiery Hugo Black; Cotton Tom Heflin and Cotton Ed Smith . . .
The place was loaded with talent. As Bledsoe surveyed the scene at the opening of each matinee, he could feel the popular galleries across from the press section stir in expectation of the unexpected. Necks swiveled and fingers pointed as tourists spotted the members enter through the swinging cloakroom doors to take their seats onstage.
Here one afternoon was Connally, comparing a Republican critic of FDR, Senator Lester Dickinson, to "a swamp owl - the more light you throw around him, the blinder he gets"; on another day, Norris chiding his colleague Borah, whose sobriquet was "The Great Opposer," as being a politician who "always shoots until he sees the whites of their eyes."
According to Bledsoe, in the 1930s no less than in the 1830s, Southern senators seemed to have that special theatrical flair for vituperation. To have been called a "rancid tub of ignorance" by a Theordore Bilbo, for example, would have been considered getting off virtually unscathed compared to how the "gentlemen" from Mississippi actually described his opposition in one memorable speech:
". . . farmer murderers, poor folks haters, shooters of widows and orphans, international well-poisoners, charity-hospital destroyers, spitters on our heroic veterans, rich enemies of our public schools, private bankers, European debt cancellers, unemployment makers, pacifists, communists, munitions manufacturers, and skunks who steal Gideon Bibles."
Populism, anyone? Ah, yes, for National Capital tourists and newsmen alike, this was where the action was: in the Senate gallery - not standing around the West Wing gate, gawking at some assistant presidential drone.
Covering the chamber in those rococo days, Bledsoe recalls, wasn't simply a matter of listening closely. A reporter had to keep his eyes open for the stray, but meaningful, vituperative sight gag. The sharpest performers didn't always bludgeon their opponents with metaphors. Some, like Cotton Ed Smith, preferred brass spittoons.
Like Bilbo, Smith was of the Old Southern genre, of-the-earth-earthy (Interestingly, considering more recent political history, these Civil War revanchists were then known as "Goober" Democrats).The South Corolinian was one of Congress' last bejowled tobacco-chewers, a solon whose Senate spittoon assumed historical significance of a sort when, during World War II, the rubber mat he placed it upon was auctioned off at a War Bond Rally.
As a Senate performer of the Thirties, Cotton Ed specialized in extolling the virtues of magnolia womanhood and baiting "the enemies of the Southern way" notably, by Smith's lights, the one who lived in the White House at the time. It was a fairly successful political routine. When Roosevelt tried to purge him in 1938, Smith, spewing tobacco juice and jibes at "Yankee interlopers" with equal fluidity, survived the presidential challenge. He had his act down pat, having practiced it over the years on lesser adversaries in the Senate chamber.
"Royal Copeland was pretty good on his feet, but very dignified," recalls Bledsoe, plucking one of a hundred legends from his mostalgia bank. "He was from New York State, out of the gentlemen's school of debate. No match for Cotton Ed, so naturally Smith used to needle him. Copeland would try to rise above it, to ignore what he considered the mouthings of an uncouth bumpkin . . ."
But then there came a special matinee performance when Smith carried his game too far. Pushed, barely able to restrain himself from physical violence, Senator Copeland took the floor.
"I don't remember what the debate was about," Bledsoe continues. "Not that it made any difference. Cotton Ed was just playing to the galleries, the Southern country boy popping a Yankee stuffed shirt. But that particular day, Copeland was so damned mad, he began playing over his head, picking up points. Getting the galleries with him. So Smith [Bledsoe, the elder pressman, even now amused by the ploy, shakes his head], he suddenly rose to his feet, picked up his spittoon - every senator had one by his desk those days - and moved across the aisle. He sat himself right next to Copeland. Then he set his spittoon down - and every time Copeland scored a point, Smith would let loose . . . Twang!"
The gentleman from New York, like his tub-like counterpart of a later day, complained to the chair. Smith, charged Copeland, was interrupting his speech.
"But Mr. President," Smith gasped, all country-boy innocence. "I haven't breathed a word . . . (Twang!) . . . Not a word."
"The galleries were jammed when Huey took the floor - a Shriner's convention was meeting a Washington and many of its members had come to the Senate expressly to hear him - and remained filled as he talked on," writes T. Harry Williams in his Huey Long, A Biography. "Whenever a section emptied because its occupants had to leave, it was immediately refilled by persons who had been waiting in line. After darkness fell, many men and women in evening clothes came in, choosing to hear the entertainment offered by the Kingfish rather than that in the nightclubs where they had been going."
It was not the last show, but the last Really Big Show in the history of the chamber. There have been others since - Morse's filibuster, the more restrained parliamentary "extended debates" of recent decades - but nothing quite like the one-man divertissement of June 12-13, 1935.
Sam Bledsoe remembers it - especially since the chief, performer, having asked his Senate colleagues to suggest subjects for discourse (and been unanimously rejected in his offer) turned to the press gallery for help. Reporters, said Huey, could send down written requests for a discussion on any topic of their choosing.
Williams, Long's definitive biographer, describes the scene:
Long "obliged in every case, and when these suggestions ran out he introduced topics of his own choosing. He put into the record a detailed description of how to fry oysters and then demonstrated how to prepare potlikker, holding up a wastebasket to represent a cooking pot. The Senate should print his recipes as public documents and send out several million copies, he declared, and for good measure he threw in another one on how to concoct a Roquefort cheese salad dressing.
"At intervals his secretary would place on his desk a sandwich, which he broke into small parts and rolled into balls tht he would slip into his mouth as he talked. He also sipped milk from a glass and munched candy bars and grapes.
"Several times he tried to secure a respite by requesting that the clerk read a document . . . Once he asked that the Democratic platform of 1932 be read. There were shouted Democratic objections. 'Can you beat that?' he exclaimed with mock disgust. He finally asked that the Lord's Prayer be read, but even this was objected to. "The guilty flee when no one pursueth," he quoted resignedly.
One hundred nine years and a month had passed since John Randolph's archetypal performance for "the ladies in the gallery." Much had changed in Washington - bu the Federal City's favorite entertainment forum remained the same.
Enter - you guessed it - television. And what Thomas Edison's kinetoscope did to vaudeville, the small screen in the family room did to the old Senate chamber act. Much as television has changed the working politician's style of winning elections - mass, rather than live, audiences are now the primary target - so has it altered the way in which United States senators contemplate their gallery-pleasing opportunities after they take office.
Thus, the modern senator with something special to say doesn't think in terms of talkin it to the chamber floor, a publicity launching pad good only for the print medium. He saves his fireworks for the gallery of millions - "Today," "Good Morning, America," the Sunday afternoon press panel shows. Or if for some reason he wants to work within a legislative forum, it naturally occurs to his mass-media experts that the way to do that is through a committee hearing - a publicity format where the Senate injunction against cameras doesn't apply.
Estes Kefauver pioneered this new-style Senate act in 1951. A pedestrian speaker on the floor, Kefauver, within a matter of weeks after he opened his nationally televised anti-crime hearings, became one of the country's most widely known senators - operating, the point was not lost on his colleagues, out of the old SOB Caucus Room, a good spittoon's throw from the chamber itself.
John F. Kennedy, though praised for his oratorical flourish as a President, followed the same route in the late 1950s. While Wayne Morse was vowin the live chamber gallery of hundreds, JFK was building a national image as a member of the televised Seante Labor Rackets Committee.
Finally, there is Sam Ervin - best known for what? Not the constitutional forensics, flashy phrases and memorable anecdotes he delivered during long years of regaling his colleagues and the chamber gallery. It took a relatively brief exposure on the small screen to get the gentleman from North Carolina recognized coast-to-coast.For that we remember him - whatever he may claim these days in those American Express card commercials.
Understand, it isn't that the talent well has run dry. Now, as in Randolph's and Clay's day, scratch a U.S. senator and find a performer, an actor in search of a role to play and an audience to please or rouse. The place still abounds with characters. Their potential for rodomontade, sentimentalism, grandiloquence, verbal excess, sight gags and a solid evening's entertainment is simply untapped.
Keep in mind: the spittoon image of Huey walks the chamber, albeit playing the stuffy role of Senate Finance Committee Chairman. But believe someone who has watched and listened to Russell Long on a Louisiana stump at his uninhibited best - the man can be a sure gallery-winner. And there is Herman Talmadge, a sleeping rhetorical giant in Washington who, given the right incentive, could re-awaken Ed Zorinski's interest in his job. And what about Tower? With a little work around the edges of his act, Texas John might equal Ev Dirkson in his capacity for oleaginous forensics. And Proxmire - Wild Bill of the Golden Fleece, the quickest punster on the Hill when out to make a point And Hayakawa, whose expertise lies in words-and-phrases.And, of course, Moynihan . . .
At the time of this writing the House has authorized trial tests for possible televised coverage of its chamber sessions. Even if approved, however, such coverage would hardly be anything to keep the evening-clothes crowd away from their nightclubs. The House, face it, hasn't been good theater since the early days of the Republic, when it was small enough to allow members to discourse for more than one to five minutes.
No, the Battle of Borodino is for the cinemascopic, not the twenty-one-inch, screen. As a potential Capitol Hill show for the TV galleries, there is only the Senate.
The Senate: back to that matinee of promise, January 18, 1977. The subject under discussion was perfunctory, something less than earth-shaking. in their own imitable cliche-ridden mode, the colleagues of the new senator from New York were bidding farewell to the outgoing Vice President. One said that it was "an honor and a privilege to have served." etc. A second commended "our distinguished Vice President in keeping our beloved country strong and secure." A third - a freshman already fallen into a rhetorical rut - said that it was "a welcome opportunity to recognize the unique contributions made by you, Mr. Vice President." Another, that Rockefeller had "presided with even-handedness," ad morpheum. Now came the turn of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. True, the man is not a Southerner or an ethnic descendant of Webster's pure Yankee stock. But political history also tells us that the New York Irish - Goober Yankees - take a back-row seat to no group in the art of oratorical flourish, whether uplifting or vituperative. And Moynihan, by reputation, represents the finest of the breed. Could be, those who remembered the old days wondered, is it just possible that he might revive the lost art in the Senate? Or would the stultifying atmosphere of the chamber, as it has evolved in the television age, cramp his style?
The gallery waited.
"Mr. President," Moynihan began, "in recognition of the extraordinarily lowly state to which I have attained [Not bad for oratorical openers ], I had not intended to speak." [Pause for effect. ] "But the courage of addressing maiden remarks to the chair having been shown by others, I could not be less sudacious . . ."
An on he went, not a word written, to spin a witty tale of his young daughter's perception of the Vice President when he was governor. Circle, as I say, the date. It is too early to say whether it will mark the beginning of a New Golden Age of Senate oratory. But with Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the floor, increasingly audacious and, given provocation, contentious, the live gallery may soon be worth revisiting.
And we may hope too - we buffs of the glory days of forensic cavalry charges and personal style - that the matinee performance is not far distant when the red camera light flashes in the old chamber, so that the stimulus of a gallery of millions may revive in modern form what was once the gaudiest show in town.