Last week, about 100 former senators and staff members came together to celebrate the publication of my book at what we affectionately called “the Great Senate Reunion.” There was a wonderful spirit in the room as old friends who had served the country in crisis times came back together again. In my remarks, I offered the thought that we were all products of a unique place and time: the U.S. Senate of the 1960′s and ’70′s—a Senate that for nearly 20 years fulfilled the hopes of the Founding Fathers that the Senate would occupy a special place in our system of government.
The highlight of the evening was the comments of former Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana. Senator Bayh was one of a remarkable group of progressive Democrats who came to the Senate after being elected in 1962—exactly a half century ago. The class of 1962 included two of the nation’s foremost governors, Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin; two House members who had been war heroes, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and George McGovern of South Dakota; and two men with understandably thin records because they were so young: Bayh, a lawyer, farmer and state legislative leader, just 34, and an even younger man, barely 30, riding on the name of his famous brother who was president— Ted Kennedy. These six men solidified an already progressive Senate, and they went on to have Senate careers unlike any other group that has ever served, starting immediately with the enactment of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964, perhaps the most towering legislative accomplishment in the history of our country.
Birch Bayh spoke about some of the qualities that had characterized the great Senate— most notably, tolerance for opposing points of view that made principled compromise possible. Bayh spoke of his great working relationship with James Eastland, the Mississippi Democrat, despite the fact that Eastland’s views on issues were anathema to him, and his friendship with Everett Dirksen, the legendary Republican leader from the neighboring state of Illinois. He spoke about the bipartisanship of the Great Senate, starting from Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat who was Majority Leader, who had breakfast every day with his best friend, George Aiken, the Vermont Republican, and radiated out through the work of the committees and the debates on the floor. There were major ideological and regional differences between the senators, but where partisanship was concerned, that Senate was almost a de-militarized zone, closer to hallowed ground than scorched earth. In Walter Mondale’s words, the Senate at its best is our “national mediator,” and it served that role with distinction in the 1960′s and 1970′s.
We don’t have that kind of Senate today, and we haven’t had it for a long time. I hope that this year, 50 years after the arrival of the great class of 1962, part of our national political conversation should be about what it would take to bring back a Senate that America can be again be proud of.