This is the story of the final years of the last great Senate. For nearly twenty years, from 1963 through 1980, the Senate occupied a special place in America. It was a turbulent period in our country’s history, marked by war, assassination, political scandal, violence and civil unrest. Five consecutive presidents failed to complete two terms in office. In that troubled time, the Senate provided ballast, gravitas and bipartisan leadership for America.
That Senate overcame our country’s legacy of racism by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, probably the most important legislative accomplishment in American history, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It attacked the premises of the Vietnam War, produced Democratic challengers to Lyndon Johnson, and ultimately, on a bipartisan basis, cut off funding for the war. The Senate battled Richard Nixon’s efforts to turn the Supreme Court to the right, defeating two of his nominees in two years. Through its memorable televised hearings, the Senate made Watergate understandable to the nation and called Nixon to account. And the Senate spearheaded new environmental and consumer protections and expanded food stamp and nutrition programs, as well as civil rights for minorities and women.
The Last Great Senate starts in January 1977, as American begins its third century and the Senate, with new leaders Robert Byrd and Howard Baker, meets the new, outsider President Jimmy Carter. There is good reason to believe that this will be a period of renewal for America, which had come through the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate to celebrate a joyful Bicentennial, despite the economic challenges looming since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.
But within three years, America has plunged back into crisis. The economy has been savaged by a combination of inflation and stagnation. A tax revolt, starting in California, has swept across the country. Americans are being held hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Soviet tanks have rolled into Afghanistan, setting relations between the superpowers back to the darker days of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan rides the tide of anger and rising conservatism to a landslide victory in the 1980 presidential election. His long coattails bring in a dozen new Republican senators, and with them the end of the Great Senate.
In those crisis years of the late 1970’s, the roots of today’s poisonous politics can be found. But also in those years, the Senate repeatedly rose to meet domestic and foreign policy challenges with courage and statesmanship. Transcending partisanship and avoiding paralysis, the Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaties, rescued New York City and Chrysler Corporation, forged a national energy policy, and preserved for the beauty of Alaska for future generations. Since 1980, the Senate has become an increasingly dysfunctional third wheel in American government. The lessons of the last great Senate—the Senate of Byrd and Baker, Jackson and Javits, Muskie and Kennedy— provide a model for what we should demand of the Senate and our political leaders to help our country through these crisis times.