With the death of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, it makes one reflect on whether he belongs in the top ten of all US Senators since 1789.
The Senate has voted twice on the greatest members of its body, naming five in 1957 and adding two more at the turn of the 21st century.
It could be debated whether the complete list of seven is accurate, and there is no final answer in any case, as personal opinion plays a role in judging greatness.
The Senate in 1957 selected the “Triumvirate” of the first half of the 19th century–Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, along with one progressive and one conservative in the first half of the 20th century–Robert La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin and Robert Taft of Ohio.
About a decade ago, one liberal Democrat and one conservative Republican, again from the first half of the 20th century, were added to the list–Robert Wagner of New York and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan.
Do I agree on all seven on this list? Let’s say I am reluctant to include Calhoun, who in my mind was so destructive in his promotion of states rights and slavery, often called the man who brought us the Civil War, even though he had died eleven years earlier. I am also not a big fan of Robert Taft, Mr. Conservative Republican, who was for much of his time in office an isolationist in foreign policy, and a promoter of a strong anti union law still on the record books despite being vetoed by President Truman in 1947–the Taft-Hartley Act.
I have no problem with Clay, Webster, La Follette, Wagner, and even Vandenberg, a conservative, but also a man who abandoned isolationism and backed President Truman in his Cold War policies and has the California Air Force base named after him.
So if I eliminate Calhoun and Taft, it means we have five senators already listed, so who else would I add to this distinguished group?
I would add Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist and radical Republican during Reconstruction after the Civil War, and a major figure even before the Civil War.
Also, I would easily add Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who served in the Senate for 30 years and became famous, along with Robert LaFollette, Sr., as a progressive promoting basic, fundamental change in domestic affairs. He was a very inspiring figure, who I wrote about in my book on Progressive Republicans and the New Deal.
The remaining three would come from the second half of the 20th century, which does not yet have a person on the list acknowledged by the Senate itself.
They would be first, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the great liberal who also served as Vice President under Lyndon Johnson and lost the Presidency to Richard Nixon in 1968. He was a very inspiring and original legislator who became my political hero as a young man, and first got me interested in politics.
I would also add Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, later our 36th President, after serving as Vice President under John F. Kennedy. As Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s, he set a standard that has never been matched, in accomplishing an agenda, and his experience benefited him and us in the promotion of the Great Society in the 1960s.
And I would add, as the tenth and last name, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who also served longer than any of the others on the list and had a massive positive impact on our nation.
Now I also want to add an 11th person, as someone who might someday be added to the list or even replace one of them. That would be Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, one of the longest serving with his 36 years, and serving as Chair of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committee during his long career in the upper chamber, until he became Vice President under President Obama this year.
This is obviously a subject of debate, but I will stand by this list against all comers! 🙂