'The Last Great Senate': Remembering a time when legislators worked together

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: April 01, 2012

The Last Great Senate

Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis

By Ira Shapiro

Public Affairs. 512 pp. $34.99


In the current climate of super-partisanship and self-destructive political squabbles in Washington, public approval of Congress continues at a historic low. In February, both Gallup and CBS News/New York Times polls registered support for Congress at a dismal 10 percent. Suffice it to say: Americans have little faith in or regard for the nation's legislative branch.

Given the desire to escape today's toxic Washington culture, there may be no timelier book than Ira Shapiro's The Last Great Senate, which explores that chamber's erstwhile commitment to country before party. And there may be no more appropriate writer to pen such a title than Shapiro. A senior Senate aide who brokered legislative compromises among leading Democrats and Republicans, Shapiro worked behind the scenes on matters ranging from the Foreign Intelligence Act to the Senate Code of Ethics. In elegant, if sometimes dense, prose, The Last Great Senate fulfills its promises to chronicle "courage and statesmanship in times of crisis" - specifically, the last half of the 1970s, when a series of signal compromises were worked out by senators of very different ideologies. The book is for the 112th Congress (the one now sitting) what then-Sen. John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage was for the nation's Cold War leaders.

According to Shapiro, once upon a time - specifically, the 1960s and 1970s - the Senate was dominated not by villains but rather by profoundly inspired, principled, and open-minded public servants. Among its members were Howard Baker, Robert Byrd, Jacob Javits, Ted Kennedy, and Ed Muskie - plus a present survivor of that era, Richard Lugar. The Last Great Senate challenges historian Lewis Gould's 2005 assertion that the post-World War II body had injuriously impeded "the nation's vitality and evolution."

Informed by a collective national commitment, the Senate of the '60s and '70s "functioned liked a great team," writes Shapiro, "in which talented individuals stepped up and did great things at crucial moments, sometimes quite unexpectedly."

"That Senate overcame our country's legacy of racism by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, probably the most important legislative accomplishment in American history, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

In the following decade, listening to the public outcry, the Senate would question the wisdom of the nation's continued military presence in Vietnam and investigate President Richard M. Nixon's abuses of power.

The Last Great Senate recounts in detail the second half of the 1970s. The episodes Shapiro discusses in depth - bipartisan legislative cooperation on the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty; preservation of Alaskan lands; federal assistance to New York City - may not seem as high-profile as Vietnam or Watergate. But they are no less worth our attention, especially as we read the illuminating exchanges among senators at the time.

After a difficult bipartisan struggle over control of the Panama Canal, the Senate, remarkably, managed to save New York from economic calamity. Shapiro notes:

"At this crucial juncture, the Senate fortunately included Javits and Moynihan, two passionately committed natives of the streets of New York, and Lugar, a conservative, midwestern Republican freshman, who had been the nation's finest mayor. They stepped up to the challenge, just as Byrd, Baker, and Church had stepped up in the Panama Canal debates."

Shapiro argues that the Reagan Revolution of 1980 "shattered" the spirit of compromise that defined congressional leadership in the 1960s and '70s.

Shapiro can overstate his thesis at times, and he may ascribe credit too often exclusively to the Senate within itself. Take the passage of civil rights legislation, for example. Americans can thank President Lyndon B. Johnson's impressive Senate resumé, and his considerable elbowing of former congressional colleagues, for those successes. Shapiro also overlooks the considerable collegiality in the midst of division in the Reagan years. Despite the rancor ushered in by the shift in administrations, ideological opposites Reagan and Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill still had enough goodwill to deliver two terms of fiscal budgets. By that standard, the consecutive impasses and refusal to collaborate in today's Senate rightly disgust most Americans.

As Shapiro himself acknowledges, today's climate is far more bitter, particularly after the enactment of the Democratic-sponsored health-care overhaul and the resulting angry tea party revolt. Despite the contention that the supermajority requirement has become enemy No. 1 of cooperation, Shapiro believes that rule is not to blame for the decline the Senate, which, he writes, "should be able to respect dissent without condemning itself to paralysis."

Instead, he suggests, change must come from the attitudes of individual members: "To turn back the current wave of intense partisanship, the most fundamental change must come from senators themselves."

Shapiro insists that, despite his nostalgia for an earlier age, the chamber is capable of restoring its more glorious reputation. "The men and women who are senators today, and those who will join them after the next election, have it in their power to begin making the Senate great again."

Congress and all its members should read this methodically researched book. And not only them; political junkies and all those concerned about the direction of the nation will also want to immerse themselves in it. But for the country's sake, let's hope each and every U.S. senator reads The Last Great Senate before the next vote.

Alexander Heffner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and USA Today.

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