The changes did not stop there. Public affairs programming on cable television and the faux drama and high-fever rhetoric it rewarded transformed all of politics, the Senate especially. This new ethos reinforced a broader culture of confrontation and devalued the sense of reason that the Senate, a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment and its celebration of reason, once symbolized.
“Now it’s all or nothing, compromise is a four-letter word, it’s what plays on the cable shows each night rather than the sweep of time (that matters),” says Kenneth M. Duberstein, who once worked for one of the giants of the old Senate, Republican Jacob K. Javits of New York, and eventually became White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan. “No wonder the party elders are in short supply. Their wisdom and voices of reason are easily dismissed by those who insist on instant gratification, who believe that they are right, and if you disagree you are to be demonized and destroyed.”
But it’s not only the contemplative streak of the Senate that has been jeopardized. If there were one characteristic beyond the ruminative quality of the Senate that the Old Guard cultivated and revered — reflected in its tone and tempo — it was this: honor.
Some lawmakers of the old temperament complain that the current Senate pressed for a budget, but now refuses to go to conference with the House to hammer one out — the word “hammer” indicative of the fact that the contemplative Senate of the past was nevertheless combative.
That sense of resistance — dishonor, some of the Old Guard would say — is not the way things used to work in the old days. But then again, in the old days, things used to work.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.