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Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington


Nor can one imagine senators sitting around having cocktails with one another today, at least openly, which is also a shame. Democracy worked a lot better when senators drank and smoked. Into the eighties, the secretary of the Senate kept an open bar for lawmakers who were milling around after hours, waiting for votes. As a young senator, Leahy was asked to bartend for his senior peers. “I remember sitting in Mike Mansfield’s back room”—Mansfield was the Democratic leader during the civil-rights era—“and suddenly I hear hrrrrrrrr. And I look over, and there’s Jim Eastland with his empty glass, glaring at me.” James Eastland, a white supremacist with a committee gavel, was a Chivas Regal man. “There were some wonderful discussions then,” adds Leahy. “You’d get Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater telling stories. Mansfield would sort of puff his pipe. And then he’d say, ‘You know, boys, I’d like to wrap this up. Do you suppose that if you brought up your amendment, and then you brought up yours, we could pass the bill and go home?’ And they’d say, ‘Good idea!’ ”

All of us can say good riddance to the likes of Jim Eastland. But it’s kind of sad that we’ve had to bid the same to Chivas Regal—and backroom deals, frankly, which, for all their unsavory secrecy, seem like a palatable bi-partisan alternative to the transparent partisan gridlock we have today. The closest version we have to them now, true to the times, are alliances formed in the senators-only gym. “Ted Kennedy and I had some of our best discussions in the gym,” says Richard Burr, one of the Senate’s most conservative members. He smiles. “Though you’d look at Ted, and you wouldn’t necessary know … ”

So, I say, you guys talked on the treadmill?

He stares at me. “Ted didn’t always find his way to the treadmill. But I don’t think I could have passed the biodefense legislation with him if he and I hadn’t come to an agreement when staff wasn’t around.”

If one were to compare the America of today with the America of, say, the sixties, there’s no question which was more bitterly divided. Bob Dove, who became the Senate’s parliamentarian, remembers when George McGovern proposed an amendment to cut off funding for the Vietnam War, famously proclaiming that the Senate chamber reeked of blood. “There was a chilling reaction to that speech,” says Dove. “I haven’t seen anything like it since.” Indeed, our differences as a nation have grown smaller. It’s the differences between the two parties that have grown greater. And that, more than any of the other routine explanations—Fox News, Karl Rove, the primary system—explains why our government is more partisan today than it has been in decades.

“We’ve lost the capacity to actually legislate,” says Olympia Snowe. “No one has time.”

The best way to explain this change is to look at the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Back then, there was a “four-party Senate”—northern Democrats, southern Democrats, liberal Republicans (from the Northeast, mainly), and conservative Republicans (from the Midwest and West). Southern Democrats were conservatives and often straight-up racists, invested in upholding the structures of the old South. Northern Democrats wanted to dismantle them, as did liberal Republicans. And while some conservative Republicans opposed the Civil Rights Act, they did so less out of racist anxieties than principles of limited government. But the point was this: There was seldom such a thing as party unity. When LBJ wanted to pass the Civil Rights Act, he leaned just as heavily on the Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, as he did on Mansfield. And in the end, Dirksen delivered a greater percentage of his caucus—27 out of 33 senators, versus Mansfield’s 46 out of 67. (Marty Gold, the former adviser to Howard Baker, likes to remind people that Richard Nixon got 32 percent of the black vote in 1960.)

“When I was first elected to the Senate in 1972, the Democrats were a different species of cats,” says Domenici. “The southern Democrats were more like Republicans—and the northern Democrats couldn’t kick them out, because they were chairmen, they ran the place!” He looks over at an aide. “Like who was the Judiciary chairman when I came in? Big bushy eyebrows … ” He thinks. “Eastland!” With his fondness for Chivas Regal. “Cigars, scotch, southern as a mushroom.” He smiles. “So the Democrats and the Republicans weren’t natural enemies then. And filibusters weren’t for partisan reasons.”

As LBJ himself predicted, the vote on the Civil Rights Act triggered a realignment in American politics, almost entirely ridding the Democratic party of Southerners. From the late sixties onward, they either switched parties or retired, with Republicans filing in in their stead, while liberal Republicans slowly found themselves replaced by Democrats. A few moderates would remain in each party (today, the Democrats have the lion’s share, which explains why they’re the more unwieldy bunch). But by 1994, this realignment was nearly complete, with Republicans capturing not only the Senate but the House, which hadn’t been GOP-controlled for 40 years.


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