The U.S. Senate has been graced over more than 220 years by many greats. The passing of Ted Kennedy – a great senator of the last fifty years – seems an appropriate moment to recall some of those senators of history who deserve remembering.
The Pacific Northwest has been blessed by many great ones. Jackson and Magnuson from Washington. McNary, Hatfield and Morse from Oregon. Borah, Church and McClure from Idaho. Walsh, Wheeler and Mansfield from Montana, to name but a few. Every student of the Senate has a candidate for greatness, which makes it even more impressive (or curious) that more than fifty years ago, the Senate undertook it own effort to honor the greatest who had ever served.
The Senate Reception Room is one of the spectacular spaces in the U.S. Capitol. Visit if you ever have the opportunity. In 1955, the Senate authorized an effort to select five outstanding former members whose portraits would adorn the magnificent room.
Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio (pictured here) was one of the five chosen, as were Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin.
Young Sen. John F. Kennedy, 38 years old and fresh off winning a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage (the book profiled eight courageous Senators) lead the committee to select the “famous five.” The other committee members were Mike Mansfield of Montana, Richard Russell of Georgia (both great Senators), Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and John Bricker of Ohio.
In a forward to a book about the famous five, Kennedy wrote:
“The life of each of these Senators is a drama in itself. Each made a distinct historic impression during the period of his public service, and each has become a part of America’s broad constitutional heritage. Clay, Webster, Calhoun, La Follette, Taft were all men who knew the value and limits of constructive partisanship, yet each also made solitary pilgrimages at times when they differed with the prevailing mood of opinion in Congress and the country.”
The selections of Kennedy’s committee were not without controversy. A panel of 160 historians recommended the inclusion of Nebraska’s great progressive George Norris, the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the inventor of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. Kennedy had included Norris in Profiles in Courage. But Bridges, a tough, New England conservative, had often clashed with the liberal Norris and he, along with Nebraska’s two Senators at the time, blackballed the Nebraskan.
Petty, personal politics, to be sure, is nothing new in the U.S. Senate, even when it comes to identifying greatness.
In 2000, another Senate committee recommended the addition of Reception Room portraits of two other greats – Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Robert Wagner of New York.
One suspects the U.S. Senate will soon be finding a place for Edward Moore Kennedy’s portrait.
The rich and fascinating history of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” is extremely well presented at the Senate history website. Among other things, you’ll find a page for everyone who ever served in the Senate – all the scoundrels, as well as the heroes.
The book about the original greatest Senators, by the way, is by Holmes Alexander and is called The Famous Five.
There are few institutions more American than the U.S. Senate – ennobling, frustrating, essential, constant. The next time you get frustrated with the pace of the place or the petty politics, just remember that giants have walked there and will again.