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What makes greatness? Mulling over the Senate

The Argument

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

Books

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

The historians who were surveyed by the Senate on this matter recommended all of those five except Taft. Their fifth choice was George Norris of Nebraska, a "New Deal Republican," who is best known as the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority and who was a longtime and effective fighter for American farmers, labor and wise use of natural resources.

Senators overruled the academics, for personal and political reasons; Taft was their first choice.

In 1982, William Penn College asked 26 political historians to name the Senate's greatest. Clay and LaFollete tied for first, Calhoun and Webster tied for third and Norris was fifth. Taft was sixth. Wagner, 11th. That survey and a long expository essay by David L. Porter of William Penn can be found in "The Ratings Game in American Politics" (William D. Pederson and Ann M. McLaurin, editors, Irvington Publishers, $39.50).

Sienna College polled 110 historians and political scientists in 1986. Clay came in first, Humphrey came in second. Webster third, LaFollette fourth and Norris fifth. Taft fell to 12th. Calhoun fell to 13th. Wagner didn't place in the top 25.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in Senate history and biography can play this game, of course. And it is a game. Its like choosing your baseball lineup of the century or the all-century college or pro football team.

It is probably impossible to isolate the greatest five or even 10 senators out of all who have served in the past 100 years -- and certainly in the past 212 years. Harry Truman, ex-president, ex-senator and American history buff, could only cull his all-time list down to 42. "I do not see how you will ever be able to arrive at the five greatest," he wrote John Kennedy in 1957.

But it's the end of the century, it's fun, and probably harmless, and may even stir up some useful arguments in saloons and salons. So here's my greatest of the century list.

LaFollete from the 1957 list of five. Norris, who should have been on it. Edward Kennedy. Humphrey. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Humphrey principally for his national leadership on civil rights in the years leading up to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he floor-managed.

Goldwater was no great shakes as a legislator, but I pick him because he so successfully used the Senate as a bully pulpit to popularize conservatism in a way that Taft had not been able to.

Taft's conservatism was thoughtful but backward-looking, Goldwater's, even when eccentric, was contemporary and forward-looking. Thanks to him, or no thanks if you're not a conservative, the 1980s and 1990s saw the election of Ronald Reagan as president and the first consecutive Republican congresses since the 1920s.

The past 30 years have been difficult times for liberals. Political decision-making has been dominated by moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans in the White House as well as on Capitol Hill. In his own words, Kennedy has had to sail against the wind.

In 1957, John Kennedy used words to describe LaFollette that could be used to describe his youngest brother when his Senate days are over:

"Ceaseless battler for the underprivileged in an age of special privilege . . . he fought memorably against tremendous odds and stifling inertia for social and economic reforms which ultimately proved essential in the 20th century."

Theo Lippman Jr., a retired Sun editorial writer and columnist, is the co-author of a biography of Edmund Muskie, published in 1971, and author of one on Senator Ted Kennedy in 1976.

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