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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…
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