James Buckley
James Buckley; drawing by David Levine

We [the Senate] looked and laughed at each other for half an hour, and adjourned.

—Senator William Maclay, 1790

The Senate can turn on you with anachronistic relevance, trendy yet dignified—Sam Ervin coming into his own at last. It is an embarrassment and a source of strength, like the South. The two, of course, intersect; they reinforce each other, eerily. I don’t mean, simply, that Southerners have guided and stalled Senate debate—the superb courtesy of that chamber is proved by the way it still calls what it does “debate.” Even non-Southerners, when they settle fully into Senate ways, often do it by getting Southernized. Who was a better master of mintjulepy eloquence than Everett Dirksen, from Illinois? The quirkier such people get, the more we see in them a type. The toga is the last refuge of ruling idiosyncrasies. Even a rebel and deserter of the Senate like Eugene McCarthy has become more whitely flown of mane, more pirouetting of stance—suggesting, in manner at least, the Bilboizing of the intellectuals. McCarthy became more senatorial by leaving the Senate—the last way to join the Club was by ostracizing himself.

McCarthy’s collection of essays is an odd campaign book, a new way to saddle up Rosinante. He gives us his poem on Robert Lowell and his 1960 nomination of Adlai Stevenson. One man, one vote is not good enough for him; he seems to think the principle should be one man, one party. It is very senatorial.

The best essay in his book may be the one called “Changes in the Congress,” where McCarthy pays fond tribute to many of his colleagues, men like Sam Ervin and John Sherman Cooper. He attacks Lyndon Johnson for trying to make the Senate “a kind of upper House of Representatives, with emphasis on committee work, roll calls, and quantitative measurements of success.” He uses grandiose corporate self-mockery in the proud Dirksen manner—Johnson had driven senators like cattle; but moving them should be more like stirring pigs up one by one. “You shout at them in Latin.” It is the leisurely code of the Senate: “There are some issues requiring human [i.e., porcine] respect.”

Power in the House of Representatives is agglutinative; but the senators like to open up interstellar spaces, pushing each other off with mutually adoring gaze. That is why so many senators imagine themselves, after a while, as wafted about on some invisible marble column, from whose height they shout their Latin. This is just as it should be. The Senate was meant to be majestic. When Houdon sculpted Benjamin Franklin as a Roman Senator, he was paying him the supreme compliment of his time. The framers of our Constitution had grown up with a hero-worship for Addison’s Cato:

Rome still survives in this assem- bled Senate!
Let us remember we are Cato’s friends,
And act like men who claim that glorious title.

The Senate, Jay said, should consist of men “the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue,” to provide a foreign policy “cautiously formed and steadily pursued.” Senators, Madison wrote, should be older and wiser than representatives, men to whom it is safe to give a more permanent tenure of office, obviating “mischievous effects of a mutable government.” Even so democratic a statesman as Jefferson thought a Senate should be constructed to contrast with the popular house, supplying “a proper complication of principles.” The Virginia Senate, he urged, should not become “too homogeneous with the House of Delegates.”

It is hard to recognize this deliberating assembly of the framers in Senator Buckley’s candid book about his own breathless scurryings around the Hill. In a very useful chapter, “The Congress: How Strong a Reed?” he lays out before us the inhuman obstacle course of his weekly schedule. (Richard Neuberger of Oregon had done the same thing for his 1956 schedule.) The necessary result of committee proceedings, staggered duties, client and lobbyist contacts, is the Mad Hatter shuttle to accomplish, occasionally, the formal object of the Senate’s existence, a vote on legislative matters:

The fact is that in the majority of cases a Senator will arrive on the floor in response to the bell announcing the beginning of the fifteen-minute roll call without any clear idea of what it is he is being called upon to cast his vote [for or against]…. He will rush onto the floor and search out a friend on the appropriate committee for a hurried explanation and recommendation. In extreme cases, when time is about to run out, the inquiry will be limited to a simple “How do I vote?” and the answer may be a simple “yes” or “no,” or even a gesture of thumb up or thumb down.

It is small wonder that each one of us has found himself intensely embarrassed by a vote after he has found out what he was really voting on.

Buckley, a conscientious man, wants to give himself and his fellows more time for reflection; he proposes that the Senate adopt a two-year legislating cycle—one year to be spent in committee, framing the laws; and another to be spent in the chamber, debating the committees’ proposals. He is realistic about the problem of passing laws just before an election, so he would make the committee period fall on even-numbered years. (That might just free the senators to campaign full-time at home or for president.) Buckley, like Woodrow Wilson, wants to hear high oratory on the Senate floor, to watch men decide in the course of rational debate.


His debate model takes as the ideal an open discussion and full acquaintance with each issue presented for legislative action. But there is a range of hierarchic considerations at work on a senator—and these provide the real norms of action, though Buckley treats them as departures from the norm. A senator’s actual room for maneuver is drastically narrowed by party considerations, by duty toward the administration (or toward the opposition), by constituent and backer interests, by future presidential candidate’s image, by obligations incurred in passing bills important to one’s state. It is not simply a matter of decision on an issue.

A senator’s importance depends largely on where he is. Robert Hartley describes the opposition in Illinois to Senator Percy’s move from the Appropriations to the Foreign Relations Committee. This was rightly perceived as a result of inflamed presidential yearnings; so homestate voters felt he had traded ability to do real good in Illinois for increased candlepower in the national press. He had to counter this resentment with special efforts to show he could still deliver the pork. Considerations of this kind go into every decision to move or place oneself in the Senate. And they should. After all, if a general tendency to vote with the party is wrong, why are senators members of parties in the first place?

It is true that Senator Buckley’s votes seem at times to sort ill with New York’s concerns. But that is not because he is really free of all ties. He is determined in most of those votes by his debts to an Issue constituency. The Senate is “issue-oriented” in ways the House cannot afford to be. Representatives are tied to one district; they must seek re-election in it every other year. Power in the House grows by intermeshings. It is true that some committee members acquire expertise in their committee’s field of attention—but that field must often be one that matters to the man’s district. Besides, the powerful committees of the House tend to be those concerned with organization itself—Rules, Ways and Means, Appropriations. Representatives can influence things like foreign policy only through the constitutional back door of the appropriating process.

A senator has to campaign state-wide—which means largely in dense urban “media markets.” Once elected, he has more time before re-election to set long-term goals, which always include the presidency. This means choosing an Issue; often “writing” a book on it; drafting a bill; specializing. So, what William Fulbright was on foreign policy, Edward Kennedy will be on health care. (Kennedy, when he still had to be careful about the Vietnam war because of his brother Robert’s presidential hopes, kept up peripheral fire by specializing in refugees from the war.) The Issue can become a kind of theatrical routine (Proxmire on government waste) or a traveling roadshow (Hollings on hunger). Abe Ribicoff settled for car safety. Environmentalists have looked to Muskie, as labor has to Humphrey. Jackson, the senator from Boeing, is also the senator from Israel. Senator Ervin was a constitutional nitpicker on blacks’ rights and a constitutional purist on the right to privacy. One reason for the South’s great power in the Senate was that all its separate grandees had to be united on one Issue: white supremacy.

Choosing one’s Issue is very important. It depends, in part, on which Issues are open. No senator wants to be overshadowed by a prior claimant, or linked too closely with a man who might embarrass his more general position. Some issues get stolen from a man—as Dirksen fathered Percy’s All Asian Peace Conference off on someone, anyone, else to keep his junior colleague from getting too much credit if the thing worked. (Percy had earlier relied on a public housing scheme for his Issue, and watched that get amended into other people’s custody.) Joseph McCarthy’s shopping around for an Issue is famous—Georgetown’s Father Edmund Walsh served up communism over lunch at the Colony. Sometimes the Issue is a complex of ideas, like Goldwater’s “conservatism,” or even a network of feelings. For Robert Kennedy, being a Kennedy was the Issue. That is why Edward Kennedy cannot shed unwanted presidential solicitings: being a Kennedy is of itself a presidential Issue, with its own special constituency. (Even Robert Kennedy, if he had succeeded in becoming Johnson’s vice president, as he desired, would have found his constituents balking, or prodding him to dangerous subversion of a non-Kennedy president.)


Issue constituents are at least as demanding as the money and interest ones. That is why it helps to find the right blend of Issues. Senator Jackson is hawkish on foreign policy—a stand dictated by his local constituency, and appealing to the right in general. Not only Boeing, but a general xenophobia, is part of his origins; he was one of the fiercest anti-Nisei orators of World War II. But he is also a strong supporter of Israel—which appeals to some on the left, and gives him a presidential constituency willing to fund his campaigns. The two Issues fit neatly together.

Senator Buckley, on the other hand, chose environment as his second Issue. (The first is the same as Goldwater’s—is, in fact, more Goldwaterism than conservatism.) The interest in environment came from Buckley’s hobby as an amateur zoologist—much as Goldwater’s interest in Arizona Indians came from a hobby as his state’s photographer. But when, on things like the SST, Buckley has to vote with his first constituency (business and defense), Sierra Clubs get angrier at him than if he never voiced environmental concerns. When Buckley is called unpredictable, it depends on what constituency you use to make your predictions. He managed to score a perfect zero in last year’s ADA ratings.

One’s Issues should be complementary, even compensating. Support of Israel is a presidential Issue for Jackson. It is only a local one for Senator Javits—if he still had a dream of the presidency, he would have to find a balancing national Issue. American Indian policy, a minor Issue for Goldwater, Fred Harris, and James Abourezk, was a minor nuisance to McGovern. Blacks, a national Issue for Robert Kennedy, would be for Edward Brooke a local Issue to be balanced off. The problem with such balancings is that one can reach a state of equipoise resembling paralysis. Henry Jackson, the invisible campaigner, covers so many bases that he is considered the Hill’s most effective senator—yet these very achievements seem to block his upward path, as did Senator Robert Taft’s. Jack Kennedy, by contrast, got launched by the imaginative coup of inventing that emptiest of Issues, mere youth: Vigan.

Henry Jackson is an interesting study in energetic self-immobilization. The more he talks, the more of him fades, leaving nothing but a Cheshire frown. It would be interesting to know why he, churning away so well at lower levels, seems incapable of getting airborne. He surfaces in a presidential year much as Wilbur Mills did in 1972, a mole come up into daylight, blinking away, trying to fly with his eyelashes. But Peter Ognibene does not help us explore this problem. He is here to nibble and bombard, big things and little, indiscriminately. When Jackson does not marry, he is blamed for it; when he does marry, he is blamed for that. His wife is criticized for being dull; but we know that if she showed the slightest touch of flair, that would also be counted against her. This trivializes any criticism of Jackson on serious grounds. He may be dangerously bellicose, an only lightly opiated Mars; but he is not the fanatical accountant, all fire and ice at once, of this book. The senators’ mutual protection league is justified in forming ranks against Ognibene.

Robert Hartley does not write as well as Ognibene. Indeed, he can suggest unlikely crash-dive poses in a sentence like this: “During much of the 1940’s, the handsome countenance of Dwight H. Green occupied the governor’s chair.” But Hartley knows his Illinois politics (that jungle), and he traces all the pressures at work on a Republican senator from that state who also wants to be president. Charles Percy has evaded most dangers posed to his career—perils typically raised more by his own party than the opposing one. But this man who plans his life ahead of time, in Benjamin Franklin style, just drifts farther off from his ultimate goal.

The first thing I ever heard about Chuck Percy came from a young Chicago Tribune journalist who went to interview him. They swam in Percy’s heated pool, in the Kenilworth mansion Percy chose for his own while going by it as a paperboy. The senator, who had been a water-polo star at the University of Chicago, proposed a race; and contrived, every time, to lose by a flattering split second—and kept doing that even when the journalist experimented to see if he could lose. Percy is a champion deferrer. He tries to rise by bowing.

At the 1972 Miami convention, when Percy came down to the pool of the Playboy Hotel (where the Illinois delegation was staying), I saw him dodge admiring political wives for a while, then swim desperately out into the ocean to shake off the most persistent young matron. Percy, nearing sixty with a cryogenic boyishness, has a hard time keeping some people from chucking him under the chin. Yet that very charm attracted all his first patrons. He arrived on the Republican scene in the deceptive Eisenhower dawn of study clubs and seminars that was supposed to grow up and become the New Republicanism. Eisenhower adopted Percy, and told him to write the 1960 platform; but the Republican convention did not want a Great Books anthology. (The only one who has risen very far on the Fifties mountain of Rockefeller Reports is Henry Kissinger.) Eisenhower, like George Washington, would have no political progeny.

Percy came to be seen by a Goldwaterized party as the client, rather, of Rockefeller, the Reports man himself—and the right wing’s Father of Lies. Percy has tried to live down this damaging impression, courting Nixon as long as he could; but the right wing has consigned him to that limbo of mythology where Pocantico’s aging capitalist becomes a badly disguised Marxist. Soon all his friends will say of Percy, as they have of Rockefeller, that he could have got elected but never, in his party, nominated.

Yet he will continue to be “mentioned” as presidential material. Most senators are. What, after all, is the modern Senate but a presidential launching pad? Another reason the South once made such a mark on the Senate was that Southerners were automatically excluded from consideration for the presidency—they had to concentrate all their flair on Senate power. But now even an old Ku Kluxer like Robert Byrd dreams of the White House. Five of the last seven presidents have been senators. The other two were political freaks—Eisenhower, who came into politics at the top; and Ford, only half transformed by the wicked sorcerer’s last wave of his wand.

More than that: the six vice presidents preceding Agnew were all senators. The last ten defeated nominees for president and vice president have all been senators. This year seven candidates or near-candidates for the nomination are senators (Jackson, Bayh, Humphrey, Muskie, Church, Byrd, Mathias). Two others—McCarthy and Harris—retired from the Senate to campaign semi-permanently for the White House. Three others have withdrawn themselves from this year’s race: Kennedy, Mondale, and Bentsen. And when vice presidents are being considered, a flock of senators hovers and hopes—Baker, Brock, Brooke, Stevenson. There is a club of those who have run in the past—Goldwater, Thurmond, Sparkman, Humphrey, Muskie, Eagleton, McGovern. A younger crop of men is being groomed, or is maneuvering, for later consideration—Adlai Stevenson III, Weicker, Biden, Buckely himself. We can assume that, with the exception of some old survivors from the South’s proscribed time, almost all the sitting senators have been, are, or will be presidential candidates.

It was not always so. One did not, in the nineteenth century, go to the Senate to become president. One often went there to collect large bribes. Senators were chosen by state legislatures, and supported increasingly by Gilded Age rakeoffs. It became a millionaires’ club; content, in Jefferson’s distinction, to represent the nation’s wealth rather than its wisdom. Bright innovative men, men like Henry Clay, preferred the House of Representatives to this soiled House of American Lords. The speaker became the most powerful man in Congress (and sometimes in the country). We cannot imagine a modern president—an Eisenhower, say, or Johnson—running for the House of Representatives after completion of his presidential term; yet John Quincy Adams did just that. Even Ford, the man of the House, cannot go back there if he loses in 1976. It would be too great a come-down.

The rebirth of the Senate came with the success of the muckrakers’ drive for direct election of senators (1913). The speaker’s power had been broken under Joe Cannon; and the senators, now campaigning statewide for numbers where they were densest, began to redress somewhat the House’s rural over-representation. The Senate took up again its most important trust, the treaty-making power. Senator Lodge was now the king of the Hill, facing Wilson down. Roosevelt, for all his imperial presidency, had a worthy adversary in Taft. Vandenberg and Fulbright partly maintained the Senate’s claim in foreign affairs.

Some think we have gone too far in looking to the Senate for presidential material—that administrative talent should be called upon from elsewhere: from governors, university presidents, executive department heads. The president, we are told, executes; more like a governor than like legislators. But that maxim can mislead. The modern president still initiates the legislative program and forms policy goals, dealing with the biggest Issues when not dealing in large symbols. Does organizational talent equip one for the presidency? Then the best-equipped man of modern times was Herbert Hoover.

Besides, it now takes great executive skill to use the Senate for aiming at the White House. Even a representative of some seniority in the House has personal and committee staff drawing down a $150,000 payroll. But an important senator has interlocking staffs in his home state, his Hill office, and the various committees that make him command a million dollars of man-hours every year, just counting those on public pay. This, along with volunteer and privately funded campaign workers, gives such a senator an empire to govern. Kennedy, Humphrey, Jackson—each holds four chairmanships, with power to hire and fire staff. Jackson serves on twenty-four committees and subcommittees, Kennedy on twenty-two, Humphrey on seventeen. Each has a base for dealing with many agencies, Jackson mainly at Interior, Kennedy in his two Judiciary chairs, Humphrey in the Joint Economic Committee. All of them naturally want bright staff people, with good ties to the departments. An important modern senator runs a kind of mini-government, warming up for the White House.

The imperial urge for committee posts—most senators hold at least sixteen—does scatter a senator’s attention, as Buckley rightly observes. But the obvious remedy—increasing the number of senators to do the work—is unacceptable to this sacred chamber, since it would also dilute power. Turf is jealously guarded. This means jockeying among the senators themselves for committee appointments, chairmanships, staff, office space, etc. But it leads to an even more intense common front against anyone who would curtail a senator’s prerogatives, the dignity of his order.

Senators take very good care of other senators. Even the exceptions prove the rule. The Senate censured Joseph McCarthy, but only after he had taken to things like calling Senator Fulbright “Half-Bright.” Lyndon Johnson could vote in good conscience for censure, not on any evidence brought before the Watkins committee, but because McCarthy insulted Senator Watkins. Thomas Dodd was treated with kid gloves by the Stennis committee until he demanded the removal of the committee’s vice chairman, Senator Bennett, for prejudice. The senators’ code with each other is “Mock not, that ye be not mocked.” They will laugh at each other; but they get very nervous if they hear outsiders joining in. In this, at least, the Senate is still the place Mark Twain described, presenting Senator Dilworthy’s ordeal:

“Don’t use such strong language; you talk like a newspaper. Congress has inflicted frightful punishments on its members—now you know that. When they tried Mr. Fairoacks, and a cloud of witnesses proved him to be—well, you know what they proved him to be—and his own testimony and his own confessions gave him the same character, what did Congress do then?”

“Well, what did Congress do?”

“You know—Congress intimated, plainly enough, that they considered him almost a stain upon their body; and without waiting ten days, hardly, to think the thing over, they rose up and hurled at him a resolution declaring that they disapproved of his conduct!”

“It was a terrific thing—there is no denying that. If he had been proven guilty of theft, arson, licentiousness, infanticide, and defiling graves, I believe they would have suspended him—for two days.”

“You can depend on it. Congress is vindictive. Congress is savage, sir, when it gets waked up once. It will go to any length to vindicate its honor at such a time!”

Although few can work up quite the regard for senators that senators have, the body as a whole has never stood higher in general esteem. It almost meets the expectations of the founders. Governors often move over to the Senate—Wallace is practicing, already, for that move. But would Humphrey now trade office with Governor Wendell Anderson, or Goldwater with Governor Raul Castro? Senator Percy will stay in the Senate as long as he can, short of moving to the White House; it is even better than being president of a large corporation. But from the House he would have to look back wistfully toward Bell and Howell. Even an ex-president may now become a senator with dignity—as easily as foiled presidential candidates return to its chamber. As a place of such prestige, as the elective national office with longest tenure, the Senate attracts about as good a brand of politician as we are likely to produce. Even inferior material can be improved there, since the elaborate courtesy of senators to senators enacts, in small, the civilizing process. Even a rough Klanner like Robert Byrd has moved up above the level of the House’s vulgar pettiness (exemplified in Wayne Hays) to become a gentleman’s butler to the chamber, and almost a gentleman. That would amaze Mark Twain.

With important help from Nixon, the Senate has almost nerved itself to act like the body envisaged in our Constitution. It turned President Ford down when he proposed last-gasp aid for Saigon and second-step commitment to Angola. It scared the senators to act like Cato’s friends and they are backing off somewhat on the CIA. But Madison would recognize roughly what he had in mind if he looked in on the Senate today. Maybe only wanting to be president can make senators act like men. It swells the head to be sure—and makes the Senate look like a hundred Franklin kites, each coaxed up on the wind current as high as possible, to tempt the presidential lightning. But what a gaudy sight that gives us for our money.

This Issue

March 4, 1976