Senator Johnson's Sad Malady and the Media
In the hullaballoo over Sen. Tim Johnson's brain surgery, there are a few facts and examples that I'm not seeing, at least in the TV coverage:
1. In the sad case that Sen. Johnson cannot continue in office, some suggest it's outrageous that replacing Johnson with a Republican would deny the voice of the majority. Just remember how tight that Senate race was in 2002. Sen. Johnson was reelected by about 500 votes -- 167,481 to 166,954.
2. One of the recent examples of a death in office was Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, who was re-elected to a second term in 1998, and died after a hemorrage and brain surgery in 2000, and was replaced in the Senate by former Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat. This was one reason the Senate tipped to a 50-50 margin after the 2000 election. No one in the media fussed that the seat changed parties. (This was before Zell Miller became a thorn in the hide of the national Democrats.)
Noel Sheppard is right that we shouldn't trample all over the human struggle that Sen. Johnson faces with endless footprints of calculation. But it is interesting that Tim Russert and others are pulling out old examples like Sen. Karl Mundt of South Dakota in 1969. Why ignore examples that are much more recent?
Here’s a few transcripts from the Friday morning shows.
On ABC, Megan McCormack found reporter Jake Tapper traveling back to the 1940s: "With a one vote margin in the Senate, will Democrats still retain control, even if Johnson is bed-ridden for months? Actually, yes. There have been senators who's illnesses kept them out of the Senate for years. In 1943, 85 year old Virginia Senator Carter Glass had just been re-elected, but was too frail to come to work to take the Senate oath. The Senate secretary went to Glass's home in rural Lynchburg, Virginia to swear him in. Glass died three years later as a sitting senator, though he never returned to the Senate. In 1964, Senate civil rights supporters were so desperate for the vote of California Senator Clair Engle, who was partially paralyzed after surgery to remove a brain tumor, they carried him onto the floor of the Senate. Engle could not speak, but he slowly raised his hand in motion towards his eye, eye, signifying an aye vote, an affirmative vote, and the civil rights measure went on to become law. The point being, Diane, that there's lots of precedent for Senator Johnson to take as much time as he needs to recover. Diane?"
On CBS, Mike Rule noticed that Bob Schieffer underlined how a long wait would be completely normal: "And what we have found historically is Senators in both parties have given a lot of leeway to people who have illnesses like this. When Senator Biden had brain surgery back in 1988, for example, no one questioned that he was going to be off the job for several months; they simply waited until he was able to come back and he recovered completely. I think you're going to see something like that. There will be no push to try to force him to resign or something like that. People will just wait and see what happens. Right now it looks like he's on the way, the early stages of recovering."
On CNN, Scott Whitlock discovered reporter Dana Bash used the Mundt case: "In 1969 another South Dakota senator Carl Mundt, suffered a stroke and refused to resign. He ended up serving four years without casting a vote. The incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, had surgery for a brain aneurysm in 1988 and did not come to work for seven months. Now, even in this age of bitter partisanship, the Senate is still quite a tight-knit club. That's why Republicans won't even discuss the idea of regaining the majority because of Senator Johnson's ailment. Not even in private, Soledad. One GOP senator told us, late yesterday, that any talk of replacing Senator Johnson is, quote, ‘ghoulish.’"
CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien replied: "It is. And it's kind of crass. I mean, frankly, every one really should be sort crossing their fingers and hoping for his recovery, because he’s very sick." It’s crass for politicians to discuss it, but not news people, of course.