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My Favorite Senators?

‘The Last Great Senate’ Suffers From a Nostalgic Haze About the 1970s

Art Shay/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
“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.

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). 

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. 

During the 1970s, some observers voiced regret over that decade’s growing partisanship and fondly recalled the more bipartisan 1950s, which was a quieter legislative era. 

For Shapiro, one twist to this approach is that his book virtually ignores the surviving “old school” Democratic Senators, mostly Southerners, even though some continued to hold influential chairmanships in 1977 — such as on the Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Judiciary and Public Works committees. 

In a brief epilogue on the Senate since 1980, Shapiro writes that “today’s fractured and ineffective Senate is the product of the continuous, relentless movement of the Republican Party further and further to the right.” (He seems not to have noticed the leftward shift of the Democrats.)

But Shapiro — who held top international trade posts with Clinton, lost an open-seat House Democratic primary in 2002 to Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and now is a partner in a large Washington law firm — harshly characterized the Democratic-controlled Senate from 2009 to 2010 as “dysfunctional” despite its successes in enacting an economic stimulus, a health care overhaul and financial regulation.

His hostility toward the current Senate evokes another possible title for his book, which was a term he used to describe the chamber during the 12-year service of Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), the son of the former Senator: “It wasn’t his father’s Senate.”

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