The U.S. Senate has a great past but no good history Defiance: The World's Premier Legislative Body eludes those who speak to define it.


March 22, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

William Gladstone, the greatest politician of 19th century Great Britain (four times prime minister), once said of the United States Senate that it was "the most remarkable of all inventions of modern politics."

So why can't someone write a good history of it?

The most recent miss is 1997's "Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990" (Library of Congress, 262 pages, $34.95) by Joseph Martin Hernon.

Professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Hernon seems to agree with Gladstone: He says of the Senate, "Too much of our history centers on presidencies . . . yet some senators who served unbroken terms for two or three decades were more politically significant than many presidents."

Hernon had a good idea for a study of the Senate. He studies it, the rest of the federal government and American society by emphasizing the contrasts of two senators from each of nine periods of from five to 40 years. For instance, the 1950-1990 period is mostly about Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, a liberal, and South Carolina's conservative Strom Thurmond.

That some long-serving senators have a cumulative impact on American law and society greater than many - I'd say most - presidents is indisputable. The most obvious example is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy versus President John F. Kennedy. Jack will always be favored over Teddy as a subject by historians, political scientists, biographers and journalists - but the latter has accomplished far more in his 36 (and counting) Senate years than his brother did in his three in the White House.

To say that Professor Hernon's book is a miss is not to dismiss it. It's a good book. He writes well, is thoughtful and is well-read in Senate history and lore.

And yet . . . .

You put it down wanting to know more about the Senate, to understand it better, to get to know better those senators who did indeed outperform their presidential contemporaries -not to mention those many colorful senators who didn't perform so well but greatly entertained. Know them as people and as practitioners of the art or craft of being a senator.

Hernon is not the first writer to come up short in attempting to write a Senate history. At least he produced a book. I spent well over a year a while back researching what I expected to be a Senate history told through the lives of one family that was represented in the Senate for over a hundred years (the Bayards of Delaware). I gave up.

Walter Kravitz, a distinguished historian at the Library of Congress, spent 20 years working on a Senate history that he has not written and will not write. A thorough researcher, he was defeated by trying to organize all the interesting and important elements of the institution's life into a book.

Then there's Neil MacNeil. A former Time magazine Washington correspondent with a real respect for Congress, and expertise, he set out a dozen years ago to do a Senate history. Having produced the well-received "Forge of Democracy," a history of the House of Representatives, he was expected to provide Senate buffs with the history we have all been waiting for.

We"re still waiting. "I thought I'd whip it out quickly," he said recently. "Now I can't tell even if I'm near the end." The problem is too many great characters and, apparently, too much connectiveness. The Senate really is a continuing body. Things that happen in today's Senate turn out to be related in ways previously unrecognized to events or individuals of a generation or more ago. Just when MacNeil thinks he's got something figured out right, a new piece of the puzzle turns up.

There are books that Senate buffs can dig into with delight, including one that is a more or less straight and complete (and so far even definitive) chronological history. It is "The Senate 1789-1989/Addresses on the History of the United States Senate" (Government printing office, 800 pages, $56) by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.

It was published by the Government Printing Office to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Senate in 1989. If the combination of Senator Byrd and the GPO turns you off, I, a

cynical newspaperman when it comes to pols, understand, but this is an excellent work - one that any Senate junkie has to love.

Minnutiae and trivia

The volume is the first part of a much more ambitious series, and those readers who go beyond junkiedom to downright pathological delight in Senate minutiae and trivia will love the three companion volumes, especially Volume IV. It contains lists and tables of all senators through 1989, all Senate officers, all Cabinet and Supreme Court nominations, approved and rejected, tie votes, the number of Senate bills introduced and passed in every Congress, salaries, staffing, black senators, women senators, senators who rose to higher office, censured and expelled senators, longest speeches, longest filibusters, etc., etc., etc.

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