Readers of a certain age will remember Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), the Republican senator from Maine who enjoyed a certain renown in her day as the first woman whose name was entered into the nomination process for president by a major party (1964), and for her daily habit of wearing a fresh rose in the buttonhole of her business suit. Senator Smith had another distinction: She was an early Republican critic of Joseph McCarthy, and in June 1950 issued a “Declaration of Conscience” against his growing influence on the Senate floor.
For this she was reviled as “Moscow Maggie” by McCarthy’s staff. But as might be expected, it also earned her considerable admiration in the press, and among her Democratic colleagues in the Senate. She was known thereafter as the Conscience of the Senate—and often referred to as such, in public, without irony.
And of course, as often happens, when Margaret Chase Smith was defeated for reelection in 1972, the U.S. Senate suddenly found itself without an unofficially-designated Conscience. Depending on your point of view, this honorary title might have been bestowed at that time on someone like, say, Barry Goldwater or Edward Kennedy or, perhaps, John Danforth or Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In my view, however, there is really only one senator of recent vintage who truly qualified for the title.
Since his election in 1992, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has consistently displayed an impressive combination of the qualities that make a Conscience of the Senate. A relentlessly partisan Democrat, he has spoken with particular eloquence and persistence on behalf of bipartisanship in Congress. And while pursuing political advantage, or sabotaging ideological opponents, Senator Feingold has operated with an especially acute sanctimony, reliably depicting himself as incorruptible in comparison with fallen colleagues, or claiming martyrdom while appealing to his electoral base.
If an observer were to free-associate the word “piety” with the Senate membership, or the old-fashioned formula of “holier than thou,” chances are better than even that Russ Feingold’s name would come first to mind. His sonorous voice and earnest manner are from Central Casting, and it is not for nothing that the latest round of campaign finance “reform” is called McCain-Feingold.
But alas! The Conscience of the Senate was defeated for reelection earlier this month—and by a Republican challenger with strong Tea Party support. Which means that the purity – in Maureen Dowd’s phrase, the absolute moral authority – of Russ Feingold’s statesmanship cannot now be doubted. Yet it also means that the 112th Senate is without a conscience.
If not Feingold, who? In surveying the new Senate, it is not difficult to discard the obvious ineligible categories such as firebrand (Sherrod Brown, Jim DeMint, Bernard Sanders), hack (Tom Harkin, Benjamin Cardin, Sheldon Whitehouse), time-server (Daniel Akaka, Orrin Hatch, Patty Murray), or buffoon (Al Franken, Barbara Boxer, Jim Webb). But if the timeless qualities of piety – furrowed brow, mournful manner, shaking head, compulsive admonition – are taken into account, the new Senate has an abundance of eligible members—Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Jay Rockefeller—all of whom could don the mantle without breaking a sweat.
My own (admittedly unconventional) nominee would be Richard Blumenthal, freshman senator from Connecticut, who combines the requisite personal sanctimony with professional viciousness, and boasts an Eliot Spitzer-like history of achievement as attorney general with a Tom Harkin-quality record of military service, as well as a somber voice and pietistic manner.
But that’s my preference. Permit me to invite readers to suggest their own candidates from the available pool: One hundred members of the world’s greatest deliberative body who, under the leadership of Senator Harry Reid, will take the oath in January and begin minding the people’s business.