Is the first U.S. senator to give up the...


December 21, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LLOYD BENTSEN is the first U.S. senator to give up the Senate in order to join a president's cabinet in a dozen years.

Maine's Ed Muskie quit in 1980, to become Jimmy Carter's secretary of State. Before that you have to go back to 1974, when Ohio's William Saxbe quit to become Richard Nixon's attorney general. And before that you have go back to 1949, when Rhode Island's J. Howard McGrath quit to become Harry Truman's attorney general.

Yes, it's a rare thing for a senator to give up his independence for subservience to a president. In this century only seven have.

Now and then a senator quits for some other reason. In 1982, New Jersey's Harrison Williams quit, just after he was sentenced to three years in the federal hoosegow for accepting bribes, and just before the Senate was to vote to expel him.

Another reason senators resign is to accept higher elected office. In 1991, California's Pete Wilson resigned to become governor of his state. Well, it seemed like a higher office at the time. Since then the state's economy has gone so far south his own political future is in doubt. He has the lowest public opinion polling standing of any governor in California history. He'd love to be back in the Senate rather than in the state house. Some days he'd even rather be in the hoosegow than in the state house.

If there is doubt about a governorship being higher than a Senate seat, there isn't about the vice presidency. Senators mock vice presidents, but they all want to be one. Indiana's Dan Quayle resigned his Senate seat in 1989, Walter Mondale resigned his Minnesota seat in 1976, Hubert Humphrey (Minnesota) resigned in 1964, Lyndon Johnson (Texas) resigned in 1961, Alben Barkley (Kentucky) resigned in 1949 and Harry Truman (Missouri) resigned in 1945, all to become veeps. Al Gore (Tennessee) soon will. (And, of course, John F. Kennedy resigned to become president in 1961.)

The question before the Senate these days is should a senator resign his seat because he has been accused of sexual harassment. That would be Oregon's Bob Packwood. A new national poll for the Wall Street Journal and NBC found that of those Americans who are familiar with the charges against him (that he was aggressive sexually to women on his staff, lobbyists and a newspaper reporter), 60 percent said he should quit and 21 percent said he shouldn't.

Some women's groups want Packwood expelled. His state's biggest newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, disagrees, saying, correctly in my view, "The Senate must limit its awesome power to ignore an election result to much greater abuses than are alleged against Packwood."

But, the paper goes on to say, "when you've embarrassed the club and the people who let you join it, the decent thing to do is quit."

By the way, Political Pun of 1992 Award goes to the Oregonian's David Sarasohn, who says Packwood is guilty of "forced bussing."

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