Describing the period from 1977 to 1980 as that of “The Last Great Senate” — as Ira Shapiro has titled his new book — does not immediately connect with popular memories of that era.
Nor does his narrative, with its occasionally bumpy episodes and internal clashes among the majority Democrats, consistently deliver on his theme, exemplified by the book’s subtitle: “Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.”
The author might have more aptly titled his book “My Favorite Senators” — the perhaps two dozen lawmakers from that era to whom he pays special homage, most of whom were liberal Democrats. Or he could have depicted the book as “My Greatest Job” to describe that part of his dozen-year Senate career when he was a top aide to several of those Senators and engaged in many of the book’s legislative tales.
The late 1970s marked an important pivot for Washington and American politics — some of which gets short shrift from the narrow focus of Shapiro’s history.
As the one-term Democratic president during a 24-year era when Republicans otherwise controlled the White House, Jimmy Carter often had an icy and unproductive relationship with Congress, including members of his own party. That was dramatized by the rough primary challenge that Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts unsuccessfully waged in 1980 — an experience that Carter’s two Democratic successors have been fortunate to avoid, despite the huge setbacks that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suffered in their first midterm elections.
The toxic mix of high inflation and interest rates, fueled by a spike in energy prices, doomed Carter and his party. And the Iran hostage crisis during the final 14 months of his presidency became a post-Vietnam War coda for a nation that was throwing off its imperial cloak and self-confidence.
Shapiro laments how some of his heroes — notably Democratic Sens. Birch Bayh (Ind.), George McGovern (S.D.) and Gaylord Nelson (Wis.), each of whom was first elected in 1962 during the Kennedy administration — lost re-election in 1980, when the Senate Democrats’ 12-seat loss marked the end of their 26-year majority.
But he offers little insight into what caused the Democrats’ setbacks, including Carter’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, other than to blame the “New Right” and attack politics pioneered in the Senate during the 1970s by GOP Sens. Jesse Helms (N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah).