TSD Q&A: Ira Shapiro

One-time Delaware resident Ira Shapiro is a Washington lawyer and former Clinton Administration official who spent a dozen years as a senior staffer for five Democratic members of the United States Senate.  Shapiro’s new book, “The Last Great Senate,” argues that the US Senate reached its zenith of power and productivity during an unprecedented period beginning in the 1960’s, running up through the early 1980’s.  The book has received positive reviews for masterfully capturing a unique time in American history and provocatively lamenting what Shapiro calls the loss of a “bi-partisan consensus” that characterized the Senate of that era.  TSD talked to Shapiro about his book, his favorite senators and his love of the Charcoal Pit.

 

TOWN SQUARE DELAWARE: You’ve said that the Senate of the 1960s and 70s was not only the “Last Great Senate” but that it might actually have been the only great Senate in terms of bi-partisan comity and the list of accomplishments.   Explain.

 

IRA SHAPIRO: For a period of almost twenty years, from the early 1960’s through 1980, the Senate functioned as the Founding Fathers had envisioned.  A group of wise men (and at that time the Senate was virtually all men), came together to serve the national interest through vigorous, substantial debate, negotiation and principled compromise.  It is impossible to recall any of the major issues of the turbulent 1960’s and 1970’s—civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, energy, the environment, women’s rights, consumer protection, competitiveness and the economy—without finding the Senate at the forefront.  It was an extraordinary period in which an unusual group of people—essentially, Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation,” and those that followed closely behind them—confronted crisis times for our country within a Senate which legislating was its purpose, in an atmosphere where partisan considerations took a back seat to the needs of the nation.

 

TSD: Clearly, working in the Senate was an extraordinarily formative time for you in your young career as a lawyer.  I want to ask you about staff; do you think that the nature and culture of staffers on the Hill has changed or perhaps even been an impetus to some of the negative changes you describe in your book?

 

IS:  I got to the Senate as a summer intern, exactly one day after graduating college in 1969.  I learned the potential for public service from working in the Senate, and it changed my career trajectory.  I returned to the Senate in 1975 and stayed twelve years.  It was a time of rapid growth in Senate staff.  The Senate was committed to strengthening itself in response to the imperial presidency of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the Senate became a magnet for the brightest young men and women of that era.  We were drawn to the Senate because of its great accomplishments in civil rights, and because we saw it as the nation’s best hope for stopping the Vietnam War and holding Nixon accountable.

 

During the time I was there, so were Madeleine Albright, Tom Daschle, Susan Collins, Stephen Breyer, Tim Russert, Mark Shields, Chris Mathews, Ken Feinberg, George Mitchell, Tom Foley, and many others.  Senators would sometimes complain that it was getting harder to manage their larger staffs, but the best senators — Kennedy, Javits, Muskie, Jackson etc.– viewed their staff as a way of extending their influence.  Moreover, they thought it was quite natural that the best young lawyers, economists, reporters and political scientists would be drawn to the action in the Senate.  It was a place where a young person could make a mark, and learn the arts of politics and government, while working for a senator who he or she greatly admired.  And the staff understood the opportunities that we were being given, and the limitations that we operated under.  I don’t doubt that the Senate still attracts talented young people.  But the big difference is that the Senate we worked in was a healthy ecosystem, in which bipartisan cooperation was a daily part life, making significant accomplishments regularly possible.  In my era, there was another advantage that is not usually recognized.  I left a major Chicago law firm to come to the Senate, and got a raise!  Senate staff members today are often asked to make major financial sacrifices, on top of the debt that they incurred in college or graduate school.

 

TSD: The Senate of the mid 19th Century, with the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850 was not too shabby though?  William Henry Seward, Stephen Douglas, Thomas Hart Benton, Henry Clay, etc.

 

IS:  That Senate certainly deserves credit for contributing to historic compromises which postponed the clash between the dramatically different philosophies of the North and South which resulted in the Civil War.   And I would certainly add the names of John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster to your list.   I don’t think the overall contribution of that Senate matches the Senate of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but I probably should admit to some bias, given the subject matter of my book.

 

TSD: The season of your “greatest Senate” took place during the successive “failed” presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter (or at least administrations that were dysfunctional or ultimately ended in failure).  That’s not a coincidence is it?

 

IS:  That’s a great question.  There is no doubt that the “great Senate” often felt the need to step up to the crucial issues of its time because of the shortcomings of the presidents of that era. If there was a single urgent theme that motivated the Senate during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, after his first two years in office, and Richard Nixon, it was the need to end the Vietnam War and respond to the “imperial presidency,” which the senators thought had grown too powerful and unaccountable.   In contrast, Jimmy Carter was a non-imperial, outsider president, who disliked politicians and politics as usual.  Most of the senators felt uncomfortable with Carter as president, but they worked mightily to help him succeed on issues ranging from the Panama Canal treaties, forging a national energy policy, rescuing New York City and Chrysler, and preserving Alaska lands.  It is also important to remember that the Senate’s most towering accomplishment was undoubtedly breaking the filibuster by the southern block and enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In that case, the Senate worked closely with President Johnson, who provided inspired leadership from the White House. So the “great Senate” partnered with presidents where possible, improved their work where appropriate and battled them when necessary.

 

TSD: You worked directly for five senators and served on committee staff for many more.  Who were some of the most impressive and which ones had the most lasting impact on our country?

 

IS:  It’s hard to answer that question briefly.  Many of the senators of the 1960’s and 1970’s were large figures who left a lasting impact on the nation.  Mike Mansfield of Montana, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, set the tone for the “great Senate”.  It is impossible to overstate his importance in building a Senate based on mutual trust, respect and bipartisanship.  Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota virtually invented the modern senator, connecting what went on the Senate to the American public on issues such as civil rights, nuclear disarmament and many others.  Until he became Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, Humphrey was perhaps the greatest senator of his time.  But his support for the Vietnam War, against his instincts, made him a tragic figure, in my estimation.  Jacob Javits of New York was the most brilliant lawyer and legislator of the period.  Howard Baker of Tennessee, the Republican leader of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, epitomized the courage and statesmanship of the great Senate.  Baker supported Jimmy Carter on the Panama Canal treaties, knowing full well that doing so would probably kill his chances of ever being nominated for president by his party.  Henry “Scoop” Jackson probably exerted more influence over American foreign policy than any senator since Henry Cabot Lodge killed Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.   And Ted Kennedy is fairly recognized as one of the greatest senators that ever served, although his greatest period comes post-1980, after the story of my book ends.  But there was also Robert Byrd, J.William Fulbright, Sam Ervin, Edmund Muskie….the list goes on and on.

 

TSD: With such an anti-Washington buzz running through American politics, many members of Congress have chosen not to move their families to the Capital.  What kind of impact has this had on the more partisan and less productive Senate you see today?

 

IS:  It is still more common for senators to move their families to Washington than it is for House members.  But there is no doubt that senators today spend less time together than their predecessors did.  The members of the “great Senate” often had lunch together, on a bipartisan basis.   They hung out together, in their cloakrooms near the Senate floor.  Their families knew each other.  In recent years, however, senators follow the proceedings of the Senate from their offices, spend huge amounts of time raising money, or traveling back to their states.  Their interaction has been sharply reduced, and the Senate has suffered accordingly.  As Chris Dodd said eloquently in his farewell speech to the Senate in 2010: “There has never been a senator so persuasive, so charismatic, so clever, or so brilliant that they could make a significant difference, while refusing to work with other members of this body.  Simply put, senators cannot ultimately be effective alone.”

 

TSD: And you’ve also mentioned C-SPAN and the media as contributing to the change?

 

IS: When I worked there, the Senate was covered by reporters from newspapers and magazines and the Congressional Record reported the proceedings.  We are not going to return to the era before C-Span began televising the Senate in 1986.  But there is no doubt that the Senate chamber was a forum for more serious debate before the television lights came on, and senators started playing to the public through the media.  It was much more difficult to be a senator today than in the era that I described.  The shrill, vitriolic media, and everyone listening to the news that reinforces their world view, have taken a serious toll.

 

TSD: The Senate you write about was largely an institution of men – the members were with rare exception men as were senior staffers.  Isn’t the body overall better today for the 15 women members and the countless senior female staff members?

 

IS:  As my book indicates, the major positive change in the Senate over the past 20 years –perhaps the only positive change — is the increase in the number of women senators, from one to a high water mark of 17, and the major influx of women in senior staff positions.  With respect to the staff, those changes began in the 1970’s as senators who were championing women’s rights couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t many women holding important positions in the Senate.   So the situation has changed greatly, and positively.  And from what we read, the women senators have a special bond that transcends party lines.  But that special bond has not been enough to stop the Senate from becoming a hyper-partisan institution.

 

TSD: Hasn’t the preeminence of the Senate been eclipsed in part due to a stronger, more independent and influential House of Representatives that began with the Gingrich Congress of 1995?

 

IS:  That’s a complicated question.  There is no doubt that since the 1990’s, the Senate has become something of a third wheel in our government, while presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush did battle with the House of Representatives and its powerful speakers —Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi.  But my explanation for the Senate’s decline is that it stopped being what Walter Mondale called our “national mediator,” the place where issues were debated and ideological and regional differences were reconciled through principled compromise.  The Senate’s downward spiral started when it began becoming a more partisan institution—essentially combining the bitter, divisive culture of the House with the arcane Senate rules, producing polarization and paralysis.  Newt Gingrich did much to contribute to that, as did Trent Lott, a Gingrich lieutenant who helped transform the Senate to a more partisan institution.  Senator Alan Simpson, the independent-minded Wyoming Republican, told me: ” The Senate changed when the battered children from the House arrived, led by Trent Lott.”

 

TSD: You’re a Delaware guy – or at least, you spent several years here in the late 60s/early 70s.  Tell us about your time in the First State.  Any favorite haunts you can recall?

 

IS:  My wife, Nancy Sherman Shapiro, is from Wilmington.  She graduated from Mt. Pleasant, and later returned to teach English there while I was attending law school at Penn.  Consequently, we lived four years in Claymont.  Our favorite haunt was the Charcoal Pit, where we had celebrated our engagement in 1968!  We still stop there every time we come through Delaware en route to or from Washington.  We still love Longwood Gardens, where we went on our first date. I commuted to law school for three years with a classmate who became a lifelong friend and one of Delaware’s and America’s most distinguished lawyers: Gil Sparks.

 

Thinking about Delaware inevitably brings me back to the senators that I knew from Delaware.  We were living in Claymont when Joe Biden, only 29, won his improbable victory to the Senate in 1972.  No one will ever forget the unspeakable tragedy that he had to overcome shortly after his election, and I have admired him since then.  No member of the “great Senate” of the ’60’s and ’70’s  has ever made it to the presidency; Biden is one of only three to make it to Vice President, so we’ll keep an eye on him for 2016!  I had the opportunity to work very closely with Bill Roth in the 1980’s, when he chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee, and I was Democratic staff director.   He was a strong senator who was constantly engaged in major issues, extremely thoughtful and fair-minded, and he left a lasting mark.  And he and I will always be linked in the public mind, due to his lasting legislative accomplishment—-the Roth IRA!


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