New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg paid tribute on Friday to Sen. Ted Kennedy as one of the last remnants of a more collegial, less combative U.S. Senate. But she neglects to point out how Kennedy himself corroded the institution he claimed to hold in such esteem. In "For Better and for Worse, Senate Has Seen Changes in Kennedy's Time," Stolberg fretted that the Senate "has become coarser, more partisan." But she conveniently skipped Kennedy's own sterling contribution to that coarseness -- his demagogic 1987 attack on conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
In the spring of 2003, the United States Senate was heading for a meltdown. Democrats were blocking confirmation of federal judges. Republicans were set to retaliate with a "nuclear option": a new rule stripping senators of their right to filibuster judicial nominations.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, fearing for the future of the institution, turned to a historian for help. He invited Robert A. Caro, author of the epic Lyndon B. Johnson biography, "Master of the Senate," to speak to lawmakers about Senate traditions, and the founding fathers' vision of it as a place for extended debate.To Mr. Caro, Mr. Kennedy's own knowledge of Senate history and reverence for its ideals was yet another reminder of why his host deserved a place in the pantheon of Senate greats, alongside men like Webster and Calhoun and Clay. But it was also a reminder of how much the Senate had changed during Mr. Kennedy's 46 years there.
Here's the hypocrisy:
From physical changes to the chamber -- in 1986 the lighting was brightened for television and the slouchy overstuffed couches were cleared away -- to the arrival of women, to the disappearance of the conservative Southern Democrats who used their clout to strangle civil rights legislation, the Senate of today is far different from the one Mr. Kennedy joined in November 1962.
Like the nation itself, it has become coarser, more partisan and, many scholars and politicians argue, more dysfunctional. As both parties have moved to their ideological extremes, the center is all but gone.
How did the Senate become "coarser"? Minutes after President Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, Kennedy responded in a televised speech:
Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of Americans.
Kennedy arguably set the tone for the personal evisceration of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, although unlike Bork Thomas survived his confirmation hearings. Talk about making the Senate "coarser, more partisan." In her whitewashed tribute to Kennedy, Stolberg also hailed in passing the anti-war eloquence of another ancient anti-war Democrat, former Klansman Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia:
The Senate was then, and is now, a clubby place governed by its own peculiar rules and conventions. But with the possible exception of Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat and longest-serving senator (at 91, having served for 50 years, he is frail and in failing health) today's senators are rarely acclaimed for eloquent discourse. Mr. Byrd's March 2003 speech opposing the war in Iraq, for instance, made him an octogenarian Internet sensation; until he became ill, he was known to give Senate speeches on matters as simple as the beauty of spring. But in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the world's greatest deliberative body is finding it harder to be, well, deliberative.