What makes greatness? Mulling over the Senate

The Argument

Neither historians nor legislators come close to consensus, but there are indisputable standards of excellence.


November 28, 1999|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

In a new book ("Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography," William Morrow, 692 pages, $27.50), Adam Clymer says Kennedy is the most outstanding senator of the century. He slightly qualifies that assessment with this: "Robert F. Wagner is probably Kennedy's most credible rival [as a legislator]." And he says that while Hubert Humphrey and Robert A. Taft were national political leaders in Kennedy's class, they weren't senators for as long. Clymer also thinks Arthur Vandenberg, Everett Dirksen and J. William Fulbright are significant also-rans for "moments" of greatness.

There's something wrong with that list, and I'll come back to it, but there's nothing wrong with the rest of Clymer's book. It is the best researched and most comprehensive biography yet of Senator Kennedy. The best biographies have to be written posthumously. The gold standard is Robert V. Remini's biographies of the 19th century's greatest: "Daniel Webster: The Man in His Time" (Random House, 796 pages, $39.95); and "Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union" (Norton, 818 pages, $19.95).

Some Kennedy critics will complain that Clymer, now a New York Times reporter in Washington, is soft on Kennedy's personal shortcomings. He does devote far more attention to the political and legislative successes of the senator's adult life, but he fairly summarizes the case against Kennedy the man's conduct at Chappaquiddick and Au Bar and his "chasing women and drinking heavily" in between.

What earns Kennedy the highest of praise as a senator? Well, as Clymer demonstrates, he has led or contributed significantly to legislation dealing with many of the central issues of our time. Civil rights for minorities, voting rights for the young, higher minimum wage, airline deregulation, criminal code revision, arms control and on and on. Almost single-handedly he kept Robert Bork off the Supreme Court, and he almost kept William Rehnquist from becoming chief justice.

Then there is health care. He co-sponsored many bills that have led to significant steps toward improving access to medicine for all, and though he is still losing his battle, which he began in 1970, for universal health coverage, he is still battling.

Which brings me back to that list of the greatest senators. Kennedy has compiled his record in the true Senate tradition. He has compromised and persevered. His 37-year Senate career's milestones have been marked by his getting together with some Republican, often a conservative, and hammering out a piece of legislation that meets neither side's goal yet satisfies both's sense of the possible. Then trying again in a future Congress. Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, Kennedy and Nancy Kassebaum, Kennedy and Dan Quayle . . . the list is a long one.

Compromise is the heart and lungs of the Senate. It would be brain dead without it. Long after federalism in the Constitutional sense has lost much of its meaning, the Senate is still a forum of the states as well as an arena for partisans. What the Senate does best is split the difference when there are competing and theoretically equal interests.

Every poll of historians and political scientists that I am aware of has resulted in ranking Henry Clay the most outstanding, most effective and most influential senator of all time. Clay was a senator from Kentucky for 16 years, on and off, in the first half of the 19th century. He was known as "the Great Compromiser."

Twice while he was a senator and once while still in the House of Representatives, his ability to craft compromises between the slave and free states and then to convince the nation to accept them prevented civil war. When that war finally came eight years after Clay's death, some of his colleagues said he would have prevented it even at that late date.

The best known ranking of senators was technically just a selection of five "outstanding" dead members whose portraits were to be hung in the Senate Reception Room in 1957. Senators made the choices, after surveying a number of political historians.

Sen. John F. Kennedy was chairman of the selection committee. In addition to Clay, the honorees were:

* Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a contemporary of Clay's, who laid the foundation for the idea that the nation was indivisible. Abraham Lincoln may not have had a national consensus for fighting to overcome Southern secession had it not been for Webster. Webster and Clay were both great believers in nationalism and a federal government that encouraged and supported national cohesion, growth and development at a pivotal time.

* John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the South's rebuttal to Clay and Webster.

* Robert M. LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin, who was the leading progressive in the first quarter of this century.

n Robert A. Taft of Ohio, "the conscience of the conservative movement" in his time, as John Kennedy put it.

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