Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Who Again?

Here's another one who's fallen out of our common memory, perhaps more than Michael Dukakis, not quite as much as Alton B. Parker: Mike Mansfield.


Unless you are of a certain age the chances are you've never heard of him, but if you have not, then perhaps you need to listen to Ian Shapiro, hyping his new book, The Last Great Senate.  Or hey, go ahead and read the book, which the author prudently chose not to call The Senate Under Jimmy Carter.  Shapiro evinces an engaging nostalgia for what he sees as a golden age (although one may be excused for wondering to what extent he is evincing nostalgia for his own fast-receding youth).   But you'd have to concede that names like Jacob K. Javits and Warren Magnuson--and a young Richard Lugar-- evoke a time when the Senate seemed to enjoy a kind of salience in the legislative process that has long since passed it by.

And Mansfield.  Even among those who do remember Mansfield, I wonder how many recall that he served as Senate  majority leader for longer than anyone else in history (1961 to 1977).  More remarkable, he ran the place as a gentleman.  More remarkable still it worked: the Mansfield Senate was a a cooperative, even a collaborative, place, unlike anything we've seen since.  And Shapiro relishes a great contrast.  That is: if we do remember a majority leader from those days, it would be Mansfield's great predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.  Shapiro gives Johnson a lot of credit: he dragged the Senate into the 20th Century and he passed (rammed through) the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  Yet as Shapiro recalls, he was a bully: he owes much of his success to his willingness to use threats and intimidation.  Shapiro's argument is that the Mansfield Senate was not a bit less constructive, and a lot more to be proud of. 

What changed?  Maybe everything changed.  The Senate didn't lose all its talent: George Mitchell was probably as much of a gentleman as Mike Mansfield, but he was never able to exercise the same authority in a chamber by then already slipping into polarization and (as a legislating body) irrelevance.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should read George Packer's "Is America Over". It was in a winter issue of Foreign Policy -- sorry I can't link it better than that for you.