Thursday, August 27, 2009

Honoring Senatorial Greatness

Some of the usual and predictably unreliable right-wing sources doubt the view being expressed by many, including President Obama, that Edward M. Kennedy "was the greatest United States Senator of our time." If we were into such games, we'd go further than the president, even at the risk of "falling into the trap of inflating the significance of the deceased's life" (as TPM puts it).

On the merits of Kennedy's very considerable legislative accomplishments we think he should rank near the top of all time.

For forty seven years Edward Kennedy played a central role in shepherding over 550 legislative bills into law. Almost every one of them, as the Los Angeles Times points out today, was aimed at improving the lot of average Americans, the dispossessed, and the damaged.

Particularly important, in our view, was Kennedy's work in behalf of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the National Cancer Act of 1971, Title IX forbidding discrimination against females in educational opportunities in 1972, the Federal Elections Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, the Orphan Drug Act of 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990, the Kennedy-Kassebaum Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, and the Children's Health Insurance Program of 1997 and its Reauthorization in 2009.

At a time when the alternative looked like it would be a bloodbath in South Africa to end all bloodbaths, Kennedy introduced the anti-Apartheid Act of 1985. That broke the century-old apartheid dam and quickly led to a peaceful, non-racialist democratization of South Africa, something almost no one had thought possible before.

Historians and others are fond of 'greatest' lists for all manner of prominent personages, even though they know such assessments are inescapably subjective. Most of them realize, of course, that there is an artificial quality to such exercises. So much depends on the particularities of the times in which someone lived, the specific challenges he or she confronts, and the quality or tenacity of the obstacles to be overcome. Not all eras can be directly equated, much less the people living through them.

Playing the ''greatest' game is especially tricky when dealing with someone whose life work has yet to be assessed in the context of long-term consequences. That's a vantage only future historians of, say, the 22nd century or later can be confident of having about our time.

Moreover, when we look directly at old-time U.S. senators through history's eyeglass, it's a caution to realize the great majority of them turn out to have been mediocre nonentities who richly deserved to be forgotten. Of the rest, some were good, a few were universally popular, some became unusually influential or powerful in their day, and far too many turned out to be repulsive knaves and rapscallions who seized their public positions just to enrich themselves and their friends.

Very few senators can qualify for "greatness" if by that we mean someone, as Edward M. Kennedy was, who strives and succeeds in improving the quality of life, liberty, and a dignified existence for everyone -- not just a narrow group of privileged elites.

The U.S. Senate sometimes plays the "greatest" game with itself, as explained by the Senate's historical office. Five decades ago this year, a special committee composed of senators and headed by freshman U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy solicited from "an advisory panel of 160 scholars" the names of 65 deceased senators (out of over a thousand) who might be considered "great" and accorded special honors in the Senate's reception room.

In the end,
partisan politics by right-wingers ruined the endeavor. The committee's original list of the greatest five included George Norris of Nebraska (1861-1944). Norris is most notable, today, for having sponsored the New Deal's TVA Authority legislation, which electrified much of rural America. He also crossed the aisle, as a Republican, on many occasions to support other New Deal policies for the good of the nation.

However, contemporary Republicans, including Roman Hruska (the same Roman Hruska who argued 'even mediocrities deserve representation on the Supreme Court') objected to naming Norris as "great" since he had left the G.O.P. to run for reelection as an Independent. In the end, the committee "compromised" history and substituted Robert LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin (1855-1925) for Norris. We have nothing against LaFollette, but sic transit veritas.

The committee also was rolled to include another highly questionable candidate, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782-1850). Calhoun was the virulent (and violent) pro-slavery secessionist whose 'greatness' lay in exacting compromises that harmed the public good and served narrow sectional interests. It was his supposed "greatness" that led to repeal of the Missouri Compromise and "Kansas, bloody Kansas." Calhoun's militant career defending slavery still was inspiring Southern states, nearly a decade after his death, to secede from the Union and commence a Civil War.

The Senate's final five also included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts (1782-1852) and Henry Clay of Kentucky (1777-1852). No argument there.

Since then, the Senate's "greatest" list has been further debased with the addition of the always-present but reliably-inconsequential Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793) and the isolationist, anti-Labor former senator from Ohio, Robert Taft (1889-1953) -- another Republican who just said "no" throughout his career to everything except tax breaks for wealthy corporations.

It seems the Senate can't even pick through its own pile of bones without compromising truth and honoring lies. This makes it difficult to believe, as some are hoping, that the Senate will find its soul now and enact true health care reform to honor the late Senator Kennedy. More likely, we fear, Democrats in the Senate will reach out to compromise, once again, with the Grassley's and Coburn's on the other side of the aisle. And, what we'll wind up with is another corporate bailout -- probably one for the health insurance industry -- to the disadvantage of everyone else.

And, in a final insult, they'll probably name it after Ted Kennedy. Or, maybe Roman Hruska.

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