Political Hay

The Running of the Bulls: Is Harry Reid the Next Scott Lucas?

The fourth Majority Leader to face the political sword reserved for Senate's Old Bulls?

By 2.9.10

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Senator George Norris was stunned.

"Why should people be so mad at me?" he wondered in amazement to a reporter for the New York Times.

It was November, 1942. And Senator Norris, one of the most famous and powerful American progressives in the land, one of the Senate's "Old Bulls" (he was, among other things, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the "father" of the Tennessee Valley Authority ), had just lost his longtime Nebraska Senate seat in a landslide. Said the angry and depressed Senator, tears filling his eyes: "The more I think of it, the more I get bewildered. I can't understand it. I simply can't understand it."

And then it surfaced.

The Old Bull viewed himself as a righteous man. And without a trace of irony, even the smallest sense of recognition that his ego had perhaps gotten a wee bit out of control, he insisted that "in my view, righteousness has been crucified." Crucified. Just like, well, Christ.

Yes, he acknowledged reluctantly, every Nebraska voter had a right to vote "as he saw fit." But? "But I think sometimes in a democracy, in the excitement and on the spur of the moment, that it [rewarding the faithful servant like George Norris] is not observed." 

Which is to say, George Norris, then 81 years old, who had begun serving in Congress with his election to the House in 1902, followed by his first election to the Senate in 1913 -- making his time in Washington a very ripe 40 years even -- just felt those poor Nebraskans weren't smart enough to appreciate him. Elected first as a Republican, he had become so disenchanted with Republicans and enamored of the Progressive movement he had long since been calling himself an Independent. This was, the Old Bull intimated, his Senate seat. Nebraskans had no idea what fools they were in voting for someone else (Nebraska Republican Congressman Kenneth Wherry). Didn't they know George Norris was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority? The man who successfully sponsored a constitutional amendment to, good government style, change the date of presidential inaugurations from March 4 to January 20? That he was the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee? There wasn't a progressive cause out there with which Norris was not associated. Everybody who was anybody in Washington and the media of the day knew George Norris was as much a part of the town's landscape as the Washington Monument.

And yet -- in one night, George Norris's political career was over. The Old Bull had been run to political ground, just as the bulls of Pamplona are run into the bullring to be killed at the hands of the matador. Except in this case, the matador was the Nebraska voter.

So. What do we have here? We have Mr. Man of the People spends decades in Washington, morphs into an Old Bull, and is absolutely clueless -- stunned, infuriated, bitter -- that in fact the voters of his state had just waved the red cape of an election in his face. Charging the red cape as he has for years, to his shock he found himself suddenly staring at a gleaming political espada, a political version of the Spanish killing sword used to end the life of the real bulls after the real running of the bulls. In this case, the Nebraska political sword had cut Old Bull George Norris#039;s political life dead.

Sound familiar?

Of course it does.

So does the reaction to Norris's defeat sound familiar. President Roosevelt was so upset he invited Norris to the White House for a private lunch. Progressive champion Vice President Henry Wallace, shocked at his friend's defeat, was the main speaker at a hastily organized testimonial dinner for Norris, saying of Norris that he was "one of the far-visioned social planners of his time." Unintentionally revealing of the progressive mindset (not to mention the incumbent mindset), Wallace lauded Norris the Old Bull as one who belonged to "that small group of wise public men who clearly see the future and are willing to do something about it."

As poll after poll in 2010 signals Big Trouble for today's Old Bull Senate Democrats, from Harry Reid in Nevada to Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania to Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas to Barbara Boxer in California (to name but a few -- and we'll stick with the Old Bull definition for women senators out of a spirit of equality if not decorum… Old Cows would somehow seem a tad ungentlemanly) nothing is clearer in the wake of the Scott Brown victory than the historical fact that America has been in this political bullring before. Many times.

This particular political bullring proving time after time after time that Washington fills up with all manner of men and women in the United States Senate (and the House and, yes, the White House) who come to view the seat they occupy at the governing table as theirs. Not their state's or district's. Not the nation's. Theirs. Even more telling is the acquiescent view of the mainstream media, agreeing as a routine matter of political fact that such political pillars are somehow immune to defeat because they are, as Wallace said of Norris, part of "that small group of wise public men." The now immortalized question during the Brown-Coakley Massachusetts Senate debate from Washington insider David Gergen asking Brown whether he was really serious in opposing health care if he sat in "Teddy Kennedy's seat" captures the Save-the-Old Bulls mind-set precisely.

The hard political and historical fact is that famous and powerful Old Bull United States Senators aplenty have quite frequently found themselves, as did George Norris, shockingly put to the sword in the political bullring. The list includes both Senate Majority Leaders (three of those) and powerful committee chairs (lots of those.) It politically spears Senators formally in line for succession to the presidency along with those mentioned as potential presidential candidates. Their defeats, with the predictability of the sun rising in the East, always sends shockwaves of political panic through an absolutely agog press corps (or "press corpse" as President Obama might say), a press corps that had convinced itself (if not their fellow Americans) that the Old Bull of the moment was invulnerable in the bullring. After all, "everybody in Washington" knew this Old Bull was the indispensable genius, right? "Everybody in Washington" also knew the Old Bull's home state political base was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Only to find the reality of the political bullring in state X,Y or Z was something different -- quite different entirely.

Here's but a small list of famous and powerful Old Bull United States Senators who suddenly realized that the political sword had just extinguished their senatorial careers.

• Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas in 1950 -- An Illinois Democrat, a potential presidential candidate if President Harry Truman declined a third term in 1952, as 1950 dawned Lucas was presumed unbeatable. His opponent: a little-known Republican Congressman from downstate Pekin named Everett Dirksen. But something began going wrong for this Old Bull. By May, Lucas was struggling. The Truman White House was so alarmed they set up a three-day rally for national Democrats in Chicago, calling it the "National Democratic Conference and Jefferson Jubilee." The objective: to tout the Truman "Fair Deal" program and map out a strategy for Democrats in Congress. President Truman himself would attend to make his case -- and not so coincidentally, help focus the presidential spotlight on Illinois Senator Lucas, the Senate Majority Leader. The Old Bull was invited to a much-ballyhooed lunch in Truman's hotel suite. He was on the podium to speak. When Truman took the podium, the President -- a former Senate Old Bull himself -- went out of his way to spend time in his speech praising the "fine work" of Lucas as a great Senate leader who was "responsible for guiding our program through the Senate." A few days later, Lucas took to national radio to scorch Truman's critics as a thank-you to the President. By October, Lucas was changing his tune, defecting from Truman's call for -- wait for it -- national health insurance. It was too little, too late. Dirksen pulled an upset -- and the once invincible Scott Lucas was out for good, the political sword swiftly ending his Senate career and onetime presidential hopes.

• Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in 1952 -- Senator McFarland of Arizona replaced Scott Lucas as the Democrats' Senate Majority Leader in a classic case of the new Old Bull is the same as the last Old Bull. He was popular in Arizona for using his considerable Old Bull power to get a $700 million Central Arizona Irrigation and Power Project through the Senate (if not the House). Like his predecessor, as the Senate leader he too was thought of as an invincible powerhouse, an Old Bull with lots of clout. McFarland's opponent was an unknown Phoenix city councilman dismissed in a sentence by the New York Times as "Barry Goldwater, a wealthy Phoenix department store owner and civic leader." The press assumed McFarland a winner. Why not? Forgetting Lucas's fate, they believed Old Bulls who are also Senate Majority Leader can't lose. They were wrong, making the Arizonan the second Senate Majority Leader in two years (Harry Reid, take note) to lose his re-election bid. 

• Senate President Pro Tem Kenneth McKellar in 1952 -- A Tennessee Democrat first elected to the House in 1910, followed by election to his first Senate term in 1916, McKellar was by 1952 the ultimate Washington Old Bull. Not only was he a fixture on the political landscape, as Senate President Pro Tem he was officially third in line for the White House after the vice president and Speaker of the House. Yet his challenger in a Democratic primary (in 1952, there was no effective statewide GOP in Tennessee) persisted. In a huge upset the challenger won. His name: Congressman Albert Gore -- father of today's Al Gore.

• Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee J. William Fulbright in 1974 -- Fulbright, a 30-year Arkansas Senate veteran in 1974 (who had as an intern a young Bill Clinton), was internationally famous as the folksy yet caustic Old Bull critic of first Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon's Vietnam policy. A signer with other Old Bulls of the so-called "Southern Manifesto" that sought to preserve segregation, a former president of the University of Arkansas and a Congressman, Fulbright (and wife Betty) epitomized the Old Bull Senator as liberal institution. Seeing an opening no one else saw, Governor Dale Bumpers, in office barely four years and a little-known lawyer until his surprise defeat of ex-Governor Orval Faubus in 1970, stunned liberals by challenging Fulbright -- and beating him in a primary. Fulbright and his supporters both in Arkansas and Washington, not to mention the media, never saw it coming, with Fulbright confessing election night that he was "shocked."

The list of Senate Old Bulls speared unexpectedly goes on…and on. Florida Democrat Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, famous as a champion of Social Security and ally of FDR, the "Red Pepper" as his enemies nicknamed him, was upended in a 1950 primary by George Smathers, who won the seat. (Truman, who couldn't stand Pepper, inserted himself on this one and successfully backed Smathers. Pepper lived to fight again, returning in the 1960s as a Congressman and becoming -- yes -- an Old Bull of the House.) Then there was Senate Labor Committee Chairman Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Democrat Old Bull who lost his seat to Republican Wallace Bennett, father of today's Senator Robert Bennett, in a 1950 upset that stunned both Thomas and his Old Bull allies in Washington -- organized labor.

Perhaps the most famous upset of 1952 was of a Republican Old Bull, the still youthful Henry Cabot Lodge. Like his famous namesake Old Bull grandfather who had similarly served as Senator from Massachusetts and defeated Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, the younger Lodge was a considerable Senate powerhouse. A prime mover in the drive to nominate and elect Dwight Eisenhower over fellow GOP Old Bull Senator Robert Taft, Lodge was blindsided by a young Democrat who was the grandson of the elder Lodge's defeated 1916 opponent. The congressman grandson of Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald came from nowhere to put the sword to Lodge's Senate career, introducing John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Senate -- in the seat now held by Scott Brown.

The relevance of this? History is always relevant. And in this case, it teaches that there is no one out there in the United States Senate who is "unbeatable." In fact, Old Bulls -- the Senate powerhouses thought to be politically invulnerable in their home state political bullrings -- are all too frequently the most vulnerable of all. In 1980 one longtime Senate Old Bull after another fell by the wayside in the Reagan landslide. Washington pillars Birch Bayh of Indiana gave way to challenger Dan Quayle, Idaho's Frank Church (chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) was upset by young GOP Congressman Steve Symms, Georgia's real Old Bull Herman Talmadge lost to an unknown Mack Mattingly. Liberal icon and 1972 presidential nominee Senator George McGovern was upset by Congressman Jim Abdnor. Washington State's Warren Magnuson, the powerful Old Bull chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, went under in an upset by state attorney general Slade Gorton.

In one election year after another, whether its 1942 or 1950 or 1952 or 1966, Old Bulls kept getting the sword. In 1966 the legendary liberal Paul Douglas of Illinois was upset by a young Republican Charles Percy…who was in turn upset by underdog Democrat Congressman Paul Simon 18 years later in 1984 while -- yes -- serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (J. William Fulbright's and Frank Church's old job). Pick an election year -- almost any election year -- whether 1980 or the year Democrats seem to be fixated on -- 1994 -- and it will be seen that upsets of Senate Old Bulls are as regular as stampedes in Pamplona.

In 2010, the polls are already telegraphing this old story afresh.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Scott Lucas and Ernest McFarland (and yet another defeated Democratic Senate Majority Leader, South Dakotan Tom Daschle) of 2010, is trailing all of his prospective GOP opponents in Nevada. Just as Lucas tried to recover by frantically pushing the Truman agenda, so too is Reid out front for President Obama. While Lucas backed off his support of Truman's health care reform at the end of his campaign -- too little too late -- Harry Reid seems determined to cling to ObamaCare even as the Nevada political sword glistens in the hands of opponents.

So too out there this year are the Old Bulls of today, the Norrises, McKellars, Fulbrights, Lodges, Douglases and Magnusons, in 2010 bearing names like Specter, Boxer, Lincoln, and Patty Murray. And yes -- the name of New York's Chuck Schumer.

The latest Franklin and Marshall poll in Pennsylvania has Specter trailing Republican Pat Toomey (the man South Carolina's Lindsey Graham once assured Fox viewers was a loser) by 14 points. Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln is trailing GOP Congressman John Boozman by 23 points. In California, Barbara Boxer is unexpectedly losing ground to Carly Fiorina, holding a statistically insignificant lead of a mere three points (46%-43%) according to the latest California Rasmussen poll, while slipping against the two other potential GOP contenders as well. In Washington State, a new poll has longtime Democratic incumbent Patty Murray trailing GOPer Dino Rossi 45% -43%. In tantalizing news to New York Republicans, Old Bull Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer finds himself slipping in the polls as he enters the New York bullring.

And so on.

Can powerful Senate Old Bulls like Harry Reid be beaten? A Specter, a Boxer, even a Schumer? Yes. House Old Bulls too. Can enough Democrats fall by the wayside to turn the Senate over to the GOP? Yes. In fact, what seems to be happening to the Old Bulls of 2010 happens all the time.

It's something that Old Bull Harry Reid may be pondering the next time he walks through the Capitol Hill landmark named for Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas's unknown but ultimately successful 1950 opponent.

That would be the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.