Now, dilatory is a perfectly useful word. So, for that matter, is decorum. They both convey an appropriate air of heaviness and sluggishness befitting the normal workings of the U.S. Senate. It was therefore quite in order, and character, when Russell Long, the wily and powerful legislator from Louisiana, took the Senate floor last week to say.
"Here is the rule, and let us look at it:
'No dilatory motion, or dilatory amendment, or amendment not germane shall be in order.'"
Long's citation of the "dilatory rule," as enunciated by the majority leader and endorsed by the rulings of the Vice President in the presiding officer's chair, proved decisive in breaking a filibuster and putting the Senate back in business. Another parliamentary skirmish, another debate over rules and procedures. But what was not in keeping with the customary behavior of the Senate was the scene that followed.
For once, the carefully structured facade of the Senate was shattered. Bitterness, passion, personal assaults, all flared into open. All are alien to the Senate. Older members took the floor to warn that they all would have to live with the memories of what was happening that day. Younger ones spoke of a "brutalization of the rules," of fearing the rise of a "a dictatorship in the Senate," of witnessing" an outrageous act," of "lies" and often insults.
The Senate had been through a drama the likes of which few have seen in years. Filibusters themselves are uncommon these days. Before this one was finished, it had affected the President and Vice President of a new administration already in trouble, the Senate leadership, and liberals and conservatives, the young and the old. It had involved night-time strategy sessions in the majority leader's office; an evening conference with the Vice President and a Saturday morning one with a Cabinet officer held in the Vice President's ceremonial Capitol office; the presence of administration lobbyists who occupy a small offivce off the Senate floor and the exposure of emotions in public that are almost always kept hidden in private.
It was unseemly for the Senate, and uncharacteristic for what people still think of as its "club."
A few months ago Hubert Humphrey was trying to explain what made the Senate special, and how diffcult it was for many to understand the reality of how it worked. "You've got to know each onof these people," he said. "Some people are no-nonsense. Some people like a little nonsense. A lot of cloakroom talk . . . Now clockroom talk is like in a golfer's locker room. It's bawdy. It's rough and risque at times. Lots of storytelling, laughing and hootin' and hollerin'. That's when you get to know people."
In time, every senator comes to understand this. The more successful, and the occasional great ones, learn how to move that collection of conflicting interests and egos onto a common path. People sneered, for instance, at Lyndon Johnson's Date Carnegie approach to human relations as applied to the Senate. But, in truth, human relations were decisive in his unescelied ability to lead that body.
Johnson knew, better than anyone in our lifetime, that he could not order a Senator to vote his way or that; he could not decree legislative compromises. He understood that his only real power was the power of persuasion, and that power rested on his relationships to his peers. "There are different view points and different emprasis on nearly every matter," he once said of the Senate. "There are 50 different states with differece backgrounds, difference enviroments, different geographical and economic interests. In my party we have Harry Byrd and Wayne Morse, Dick Russell and Hubert Humphrey, Jim Eastland and Paul Douglas, Bill Proxmire and Strom Thurmond - and all them Democrats, all of them sent by soverign states to speak for their states. Now, these men don't always see everyting alike."
The art in achieving a compromise or "consensus" in that much maligned term - among those strong disparate views and also in understanding that each senator bore special personal and poltical pressures that only he could entirely fathom. It was essential, then, to maintain a surface of air congeniality. The result might seem stilted, artificial, too polite to be true. But it kept the multiple pressures in check and permitted the Senate to function. It was that fragile relationship that was cracked last week, with damage yet to be reckoned.
In Washington, as elsewhere, there are winners and losers. Normally the winners command the attention. The losers are usually more interesting. Jim Abourezk of South Dakota was a loser last week; he had helped lead the filibuster for the President's position against deregulating natural gas. He was one of those who expressed personal bitterness at the outcome, and the way defeat was fashioned.
Abourezk already was marked as different; he had announced his intention not to seek a second term a few months ago. His heretical view was, as he puts it then, that he was tired, among other things of "marginal victories - if you win at all." By nature Abourezk is a thoughtful man. Now, by his decision, he's freer than most to say what he thinks.
"From the outside, the Senate has the appearance of being a club," he was saying, after the filibuster ended. "I don't know if it ever was a club, but what that appearance really means is an effort for everyone to make certain that whatever they do to each other on issues, votes, legislation, it is not going to get personal. That seems to be a very fine line that everyone's very careful of treading. That's why you hear this 'My distinguished collegue business all the time, and why everyone's sensitive about it.
"They all know they are vulnerable. If one guy gets personal, he's vulnerable himself. It's kind of like that term for 'spirit traveling' - where people say their spirit leaves their body and they can watch their body from up above or from a distance. That's the kind of thing the Senate does.
"They try to separate the issues from the personalities, the spirit from the flesh. Everyone's very courteous to each other because each one of us is potentially vulnerable. It's the delicacy of how you deal with each other. Even if they fight like hell on some issue they're reassuring themselves there was nothing personal about it."
Abourezk finds himself being dissected for his motivations, his ambitions, his real reasons for acting one way or another. "The question that always comes up is why don't I stay here for more than one term like everyone else? He says, "Personally, I think the question ought to be, Why is anyone else interested in a second term?
"In fact, I think you'd have a better running government if you had people coming in from private life serving a shorter term and then leaving to let somebody else have the experience."
Wise thought that may be, don't count on it happening. President say the same thing - but only after leaving office.
Abourezk is different in another respect. After announcing his intention to leave "the club," he started writing a novel. "Perhaps through fiction I could provide an insight into the operation of the Senate," he says. "It couldn't be done any other way. It's very hard to articulate, but I think probably no one could describe how a politician arrives at a political decision. In a novel setting, that has to be acted out.'
Abourezk has learned what Arthur Godfrey used to extol as a necessary lesson in humility for the celebrated. His novel was rejected by a number of publishers. Whatever he had to tell about the club and its real workings remains untold.
But enough truth came though the cracks in the Senate last week to be both illuminating and disquieting for its members. It was Wendell Ford of Kentucky who drew a homespun lesson for his colleagues during that inflamed debate:
"My mother told me that a word spoken cannot be retrieved," he said, "and the tongue is the only edged tool that grows sharper with constant use."