The Last Great Senate author Ira Shapiro laments how some of his heroes Democratic Sens. Birch Bayh (left, with President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter) lost re-election in 1980, when the Senate Democrats 12-seat loss marked the end of their 26-year majority.
In a passing comment near the end of his book, Shapiro wrote that Bayh suffered politically because he was “perhaps caught up in the insulated environment of the Senate.” On the following pages, he quoted a Wisconsin columnist who said Nelson had lost his “personal presence,” and he wrote that “McGovern did not really seem to try” to connect in South Dakota.
Less Than the Sum of Its Parts
At its core, the book’s fond depictions of the uplifting and rewarding Senate life give opportunities for another author to take a more critical view of the four-year interval, such as the disconnect from the world outside the Dome.
Shapiro chiefly focuses on the few successful legislative exercises from that era, notably the extended battles to deregulate natural gas prices and to ratify the treaties giving the Panama Canal to its host nation.
The often-rich profiles draw on his own memories plus interviews with other former aides, as well as an abundant collection of biographies and other books on the era. Disappointingly, his focus on the Senators leaves little room for Shapiro to describe the work habits and influence of Senate aides.
Some Senators come across as majestic — including three Democrats for whom Shapiro worked.
Sen. Abe Ribicoff (Conn.), who chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee, “had wide-ranging interests in domestic and foreign issues, and he worked very well with other Senators of diverse viewpoints,” Shapiro wrote. “Through and through, he was a Senate man and a pillar of the establishment.”
The more outspoken Sen. Thomas Eagleton (Mo.) “was a terrific politician: informal, likeable, a fine lawyer, and a rousing speaker and debater.”
Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) “had few close friends among the Senators and made no real effort to cultivate them,” according to Shapiro. “Byrd wanted to prove himself a great Majority Leader and statesman, rather than a mechanic who made the Senate trains run.”
Shapiro admires two Senate Republicans who were skilled at occasional bipartisanship.
Sen. Howard Baker (Tenn.), who was Minority Leader during the four years of the book, was “an extraordinarily gifted politician. … Baker’s blend of intelligence, temperament, and political skill meshed so well that there sometimes seemed to be no limit to his future.”
The liberal Sen. Jacob Javits (N.Y.) “loved being a Senator,” Shapiro wrote. “Besides possessing a superb intellect, Javits always seemed to operate at top speed.”
But the whole of Shapiro’s Senate — and his book, in a sense — is less than the sum of its parts.
With Democrats holding 62 Senate (Virginia Independent Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. sat with Democrats on committees) and 292 House seats, the Carter presidency began with the largest partisan majorities and opportunities since President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 sweep.
But Carter ignored broader policy challenges and the usual Democratic priority of expanding the domestic reach of the government and instead took on uncharacteristic issues such as airline deregulation and balanced budgets. His 1978 midterm election was marked by a nationwide tax revolt; Congress that year enacted a bipartisan cut in the capital gains tax rate, which the book does not mention.
Not Your Father’s Senate
Nostalgia for a bygone era has long been part of the Capitol Hill culture.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.