I have had the question asked of me, after giving my ranking of the best Senators in American History, as to who would make the list of the WORST Senators ever in our history.
This is much more difficult and complex a challenge, but let me begin by stating that there are, unfortunately, many mediocre senators on the list of nearly 1800 who have served since 1789. However, a small number particularly deserve condemnation, and I base who to condemn not on the fact that some are corrupt in their personal life or in financial endeavors, but rather on if they promoted prejudice, discrimination, narrow mindedness, or suppression of basic freedoms. In other words, their negative attitude toward civil rights and or civil liberties qualifies them for this despicable list.
I cannot easily rank them from one to ten, as the differences are so minor, but what I will do is discuss nine of them, and then finish with who I think is CLEARLY Number One. Then I will add seven more potential candidates.
I wish it was not so, but the majority of the list comes from the Old Confederacy, because of the issue of civil rights, as well as civil liberties. This is a sad reality that cannot be blamed on Northern prejudice. The Civil War may have resolved the issue of slavery, but it did not settle the issue of race, and there were a long list of senators who really fueled hate and prejudice, and justified extreme violence and mistreatment against African Americans, but also Jews, Catholics and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
So here goes in no special order except being in the top ten.
Benjamin Tillman, Democrat of South Carolina, who served from 1895-1918, had the nickname “Pitchfork”, and promoted racism and segregation in a voluble manner, and condemned Theodore Roosevelt for his White House invitation to the African American educator, Booker T. Washington, in 1902.
James K. Vardaman served as a Democratic Senator from Mississippi from 1913-1919, and gained a reputation for using the N word effortlessly, and advocating violence and the Klan to keep African Americans in their place.
Theodore Bilbo was Democratic Senator from Mississippi from 1935-1947, and was infamous for his orations against African Americans, and was simply an embarrassment to the Senate he served in.
Harry F. Byrd, Sr. of Virginia served as a Democratic Senator from 1933 to 1965, and led the fight against the school integration decision of the Supreme Court in 1954, advocating “massive resistance”, promoting the closing of public schools in the Commonwealth. His being in the Senate for a very long time made him more damaging just by its duration.
Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina served as a Senator for the second longest term ever, nearly 48 years, first as a Democrat from 1954 to 1964, and then switched parties to the Republican side and served from 1964 to 2002. Thurmond had, while Governor of his state, been a third party candidate for President as a “Dixiecrat” in 1948, and promoted the reversal of President Truman’s executive orders integrating the armed forces and Washington, DC. He went on to be an activist against the entire civil rights movement, including calling Martin Luther King a “communist’, and only reluctantly, backed away slightly from his vehement stands in his later terms, partially to win reelection with a growing African American participation in voting in the Palmetto state.
Jesse Helms served as Republican Senator from North Carolina from 1973-2003, and gained a reputation of being the most implacable foe of civil rights, using the race card on a regular basis to win close races in his state. He was seen as the image of the Old South revived even in modern times. A lot of people, including some colleagues, were simply scared of him!
The seventh and last southern senator on this undistinguished list would be Phil Gramm of Texas, who first served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat, switched to the Republican party, and served as a Republican Senator from 1985-2002. While by the time that he served, the race issue was not emphasized anymore in an open way, Gramm proved to be very insensitive to the poor and deprived, emphasized a balanced budget over all else, and gained an image of being linked to powerful corporations. To top it off, after he left office, and when the Great Recession we are suffering through emerged, Gramm was judged as one of the ten on the list of villains on a CNN investigation, that helped by their actions and connections to have caused the collapse in the mortgage industry, and the general financial meltdown. He was also an embarrassment to Senator John McCain during the Presidential campaign of 2008, when he was one of his economic advisers, and complained that America was a “nation of whiners”.
So sadly, seven of the top ten worst senators come from the South, with two from Mississippi, two from South Carolina, one from Virginia, one from North Carolina, and one from Texas.
The other three on this unfortunate list come from the “heartland”, two from the Midwest and one from the Far West.
Senator Roman Hruska served from Nebraska as a Republican from 1954-1976, and could be called the true measure of a mediocre Senator, who is most infamous for his assertion during the Senate debate over the nomination of G. Harold Carswell of Florida by President Nixon in 1971 to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, that indeed Carswell was a mediocre judge, but after all, a lot of Americans are mediocre, and they are entitled to one person on the Supreme Court who represents them! I think that is enough said about Hruska!
Then there is Senator Patrick McCarran, Democrat of Nevada from 1933-1954, who became infamous for being an active participant in promoting violation of civil liberties, most notably as part of the Second Red Scare in the years after World War II and into the mid 1950s. He was vicious in his pursuit of the destruction of many people’s reputations and livelihoods without justification.
Ok, now we are ready for the tenth and last, but actually the person who would easily be placed at the top of this list of the worst senators in US History. Many learned people may already have guessed who I am going to name.
Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who served from 1947-1957, became infamous for the “witch hunt”, the Second Red Scare, and the creation of a new “ism”, McCarthyism, which means unjustified attacks on and destruction of people for a purely political and ideological agenda. McCarthy had no limits in his tirade on people from all walks of life that the labeled very freely as “Communists”, and yet no one he ever attacked was ever convicted of any such charges. He undermined Americans’ faith in their own government and their Presidents at the time, Truman and Eisenhower, and too many of his colleagues in the US Senate were either supporting him for political ends or unwilling to stick their neck out and denounce him. Of course, there were those who were courageous in and out of the Senate and condemned him, but it took five long years before he was finally brought down by a censure vote after his accusations that the military services were rife with Communists. His demagogic actions, unfortunately, gained many supporters, many of whom, or their descendants, still defend this despicable man, the worst Senator ever, even today, and aim to divide us.
I welcome discussion and debate on this list, but I also wish to add seven more candidates to this list, who might be considered to make a longer list.
The other seven would be, in no special order or ranking as follows:
S. I. Hayakawa, Republican of California, 1977-1983, who became most noticed for opposing the Panama Canal treaty by stating that “we stole the canal fair and square, and should not give it back!”
Rick Santorum, Republican from Pennsylvania, who served from 1994-2006, and was probably most noticed for opposing gay equality, and worried publicly that the next step would be dogs and humans marrying!
Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, serving from 1998–2010, unable to get along with anyone in his own party, let alone the other party, and often saying inane things, and serving as an embarrassment to his fellow home state senator and Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Ironically, Bunning had had a distingished career as a baseball pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies from 1955-1971, had pitched a perfect game in 1964, and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That distinguished career, unfortunately, did not translate into the Senate, and he has recently been noted for working to prevent access to Presidential records in the National Archives by preventing the bill from being considered, what is called “legislative privilege” to put a hold on a bill by one individual senator. When he retires next year, he will NOT be missed!
John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, serving from 2002 to the present, having been a Supreme Court judge in Texas before being elected to the Senate. However, it has been hard to watch Senator Cornyn and not be embarrassed by his statements and actions.
Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, serving since 2005, and a medical doctor. But like Cornyn, it has been hard not to wince when observing his statements and actions in office.
We cannot end this entry without adding Coburn’s fellow Republican Senator, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has served since 1994. He is best known for being the leading fighter against former Vice President Al Gore’s global warming initiatives, but beyond that, it is just hard to watch and listen to him on any subject!
One other newcomer who seems to be going down this road to be on this list is Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has served since 2005, and has recently been railing about “socialism”, and saying health care is not a right, but a privilege.
So I now open up to commentary by any readers on this subject!