Commentary: A bulwark slips away

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – Years ago, I haunted the U.S. Senate.

I was in Washington, D.C., working on a long profile of U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, and other stories about Indiana’s congressional delegation.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

It was 1992, a different era. This was well before the terrors of 9/11. Security in the nation’s capital was more relaxed. It was possible to move from one Senate office to another with relative ease.

Although the Senate had gone through a series of bruising battles during the Reagan and first Bush presidencies over the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, it remained a convivial place.

My interview with U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, took place in the Senate dining room over lunch. During the time Lugar and I talked over soup and sandwiches, senators from both parties stopped by the table to say hello, shake hands and share a quick laugh with him.

At first, I thought this just was Lugar demonstrating his knack for bipartisan cooperation, but, as I looked around the room, I saw other senators sitting together, trading stories and jokes regardless of party affiliation.

Later that afternoon, I traveled with Coats via the Senate’s subterranean transit system from his office to the Capitol. We shared the ride with U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina. Coats introduced me to him and said I was working on a story on the Hoosier’s service in the Senate.

Thurmond was in his early 90s then. His shoulders were stooped, his handshake frail and his thin hair a shade of orange not found in nature. He’d first been elected to the Senate in 1954. He leaned over the seat to instruct me on the nature of the institution to which he’d belonged since before I was born.

It was, Thurmond said, a bastion of order and decorum in an otherwise unruly American political landscape, a place where the rules always took priority and where personal relationships were of paramount importance. In the Senate, a man’s word – not surprisingly, Thurmond’s views on the issue of gender equality weren’t exactly enlightened – was his bond.

Thurmond would have known.

A former Democrat, he burst onto the national stage in 1948 when he ran a segregationist campaign as a “Dixiecrat” presidential candidate when President Harry Truman took some baby steps toward adopting a civil rights agenda for black Americans. By 1964, Thurmond, like many segregationists, had fled the Democratic Party and became a Republican.

All along, though, he, like so many other Southern segregationist senators, maneuvered the Senate’s rules with a maestro’s touch to delay, defer and deny progress on civil rights.

A conservative to his core, he believed those rules protected minority views from being trampled by popular pressure.

Even during those bitter battles, though, Thurmond and other senators found the Senate a collegial place. When Thurmond died a decade or so later at age 100, then U.S. Sen. and later Vice President Joe Biden, D-Delaware, delivered his eulogy.

I’ve thought about those days and conversations as the Senate has lurched and stumbled its way toward considering President Donald Trump’s nominees for Cabinet positions and the Supreme Court.

Senate Democrats have boycotted committee meetings where the nominations are to be considered. In retaliation, Republicans have suspended the rules so they can move the nominations out of committee.

And Republicans have threatened to use the so-called “nuclear option,” which would allow them to do away with the rule requiring 60 votes for confirmation and instead rely on a simple majority. This would undo more than two centuries of precedents.

Most Americans, I suspect, watch this skirmishing and think it is nothing but politics as usual. They have no idea what is happening – what is being lost.

Wrong as he was about race, Thurmond was right about the Senate. That body was designed to be a bulwark against hasty considerations. Senators are given longer terms so they can ride out the tumults of the moment and so they can develop the bonds of trust, affection and respect that will allow them to deal with painful and deeply ingrained national problems.

The Senate was not built to move with haste, but with deliberation.

That is not what it is now.

Once upon a time, I haunted the U.S. Senate.

Now, like a ghost, it haunts the nation.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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