The Washington Post
The Upper House: A Journey behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senateby Terence Samuel
They come to Washington for varied and complex reasons—driven perhaps by some deep emotional commitment to an issue, or believing that their time in Congress can make their dream of the presidency a reality. No matter what their motivation or particular route, freshmen have three traits in common: they will be members of one of the most powerful deliberative
They come to Washington for varied and complex reasons—driven perhaps by some deep emotional commitment to an issue, or believing that their time in Congress can make their dream of the presidency a reality. No matter what their motivation or particular route, freshmen have three traits in common: they will be members of one of the most powerful deliberative bodies on the planet; they will have far less leverage and influence than they might have imagined; and finally, none of them—not even the most experienced political hand—will have any idea exactly what will take to succeed as a United States Senator.
In The Upper House, political analyst Terrence Samuel journeys inside the legislative arm of the government to discover what makes a modern senator. He gets to the heart of the Senate and follows the people—Harry Reid, Jim Webb, Amy Klobuchar, Jon Tester, Chuck Schumer, Bob Corker—and the institution through displays of dazzling power, bewildering helplessness, and sacred traditions both ancient and modern.
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The Upper House
A Journey Behind The Closed Doors Of The U.S. Senate
By Terence Samuel
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Terence Samuel
All rights reserved.
The political world was about to shift on its axis, but Jon Tester was tired, so he went to bed. It was the early hours of November 8, 2006. Triumphant Reaganism, as represented by the conservative presidency of George W. Bush and the twelve-year GOP dominance of the United States Congress, was about to meet its Waterloo in Big Sky Country. For eighteen months Tester had campaigned for a Senate seat against the three-term incumbent Republican Conrad Burns, but he did not stay up in hopes of hearing the results. When the polls first closed, Tester waited with his family in a hotel room, his supporters milling about the ballroom downstairs, but now it was the wee hours. What had been a long night was only getting longer, and there was no end of counting in sight. Tester was a farmer; he was used to going to bed early and getting up early. Now, about the time he might ordinarily think of getting up, Tester was going to get some sleep.
Jon Tester grew up on the land that his father and grandfather had farmed in northern Montana for a hundred years. He lived on the land that he learned to farm as a boy—flat, open fields where he grew organic lentils, red and white barley, and quinoa. He was proof that farm life is hard. In the summer of 1966, when he was nine and before he entered the fifth grade, he was slicing steaks with a meat cutter in the family's butcher shop and ran the three middle fingers on his left hand through the machine. The fingers were severed, gone forever. Even with seven fingers, he had five on his right hand, and so he would get his college degree in music, specializing in the trumpet. He liked to joke that the trumpet was a concession to his injury, because, in fact, he really always wanted to play the saxophone, an instrument that requires a full complement of digits. Tester said he remembered little of the accident. "I must have been in shock," he said. "It did not hurt at the time." He remembers his mother taking him to the hospital in Havre, where he was seen by Dr. Jim Elliott. "Basically, he just filed off the bone and sewed up the skin."
While he was a senior at the University of Great Falls, Tester married his college girlfriend, Sharla, who also descended from several generations of Montana farmers. She grew up in Box Elder, Montana, twenty-five miles from Jon's hometown of Big Sandy.
Sharla said that friends often teased her about being married to Jon. "They would say, 'How's it feel to be married to seven-tenths of a man?'" When the Testers' first baby, Christine, was born, the doctor who delivered her was the same Dr. Elliott who had sewn up Jon's hand almost fifteen years earlier. He looked at the newborn and declared that she "can't be Jon's kid, she's got all ten fingers."
Tester became a high school music teacher and later ran for the Big Sandy school board. From there, his ascent into politics followed a classic model. The school board led to the Montana state senate in 1998. After his reelection to the Senate in 2002, he became the minority leader. And in 2005 he was the Senate president. In 2006, the issue he campaigned on all along was that the Bush administration had turned its back on the "little guy." He pointed to the war in Iraq and to the widespread corruption that had taken over the Republican Party, as evidenced by the resignation of Florida congressman Mark Foley for sending sexually explicit text messages to teenage pages in the House of Representatives and the conviction and imprisonment of congressmen Bob Ney of Ohio and Duke Cunningham of California—Ney for his links with disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Cunningham on charges of bribery, tax evasion, and wire and mail fraud.
Indeed, Tester's race would in some ways turn on the issue of Conrad Burns's relationship with Jack Abramoff, a onetime Republican honcho who would go to jail for fraud and corruption. Burns had received campaign contributions of more than $150,000 from Abramoff and had a difficult time explaining away their relationship.
It didn't help Burns that in July 2006, in the middle of the campaign, he confronted a crew of firefighters from Virginia who were in Montana to help fight forest fires and told them they had done a "piss-poor job" on the 100,000-acre fire near his home in Billings. Burns had something of a history for headline-making remarks. During his 2000 reelection drive he had referred to Arabs as "ragheads." He eventually apologized—but only after the public pressure got very intense.
Then, of course, there is the famous N-word story. In 1994, Burns met with editors at the local paper in Bozeman and recounted a conversation he had had with an old rancher who wanted to know about life in Washington, D.C. "Conrad, how can you live back there with all those niggers?" the man wanted to know, according to Burns. His response? "It's a hell of a challenge."
* * *
At about 3:00 A.M. on November 8, 2006, nine hours after the Montana polls had closed, 565 paper ballots, each the size of a page from a legal pad, disappeared from the tabulation table on the second floor of Butte–Silver Bow County Courthouse. The county clerk and recorder, Mary McMahon, scoured the room for them with her two deputies. As they looked in ballot bags, under tables, and in the tabulator machines, she reached the inevitable conclusion that the only solution, after counting ten thousand of the sixteen thousand votes cast, was to count them again.
For McMahon, November 7 had been a day without a beginning or an end. She had celebrated her fifty-fifth birthday the day before and had slept only a few hours going into election day. Long before the election, McMahon had decided to consolidate the twenty-five voting precincts within Butte's city limits into a single location at the civic center downtown—in place of the long-standing neighborhood polling places—and the decision had sparked a good bit of controversy. But given her small staff, centralization seemed right: It made it easier to respond to any election-day glitches.
The irony that the first problem with counting—which had never materialized under the old system—was occurring now, under her bespectacled watch, was not lost on McMahon, who had been overseeing Butte–Silver Bow's county elections since 2000. A lot of state officials were waiting for her to complete her count. The constant ringing of the phone was a clear indication of that. But as the minute hand advanced steadily toward four o'clock, McMahon had no choice but to remove the Butte–Silver Bow partial returns from the overall state tally on the secretary of state's website and quickly shift into redo mode.
A few other counties were still out, too. Cascade, Flathead, and Gallatin—all in the western part of the state—had experienced counting troubles of some sort. Irregularities had forced officials in Meagher County (pronounced Marr), a relatively poor area in central Montana with a population of less than two thousand people, to count all its votes over by hand instead of relying on the electronic tabulator machines. And in Yellowstone County, near Billings, where the voting machines were new, election officials had started a recount to make sure that the tallies were correct.
Yellowstone, the largest county in the state, was a Republican stronghold and home to the Republican candidate Conrad Burns. Preliminary numbers showed that Burns had taken the county as expected, albeit by the tissue-thin margin of 1,222 votes. But with the results from most of the state's 563 polling places already in, Democrat Jon Tester, the organic farmer from the little town of Big Sandy, near the Canadian border, was ahead by about 1,700 votes.
The possibility existed, of course, that Burns could cut into Tester's lead. Meagher County, with its nine hundred votes, was expected to go heavily for Burns, though it hadn't enough votes to overtake Tester. In fact, because most of the outstanding counties were so small and because the margins in Yellowstone showed that Burns was not blowing Tester away, it became obvious as the hours wore on that Butte–Silver Bow, the largest Democratic county in Montana, was going to decide who would represent Montana in the 110th Congress: the three-term, gaffe-prone incumbent, or the farmer with the flattop and the left hand with the three missing fingers.
Together, the two men had spent $12 million trying to win this seat, a relatively small amount compared to races around the country, but still a Montana record. It was the tightest Senate race in the country, and its resolution now lay in McMahon's hands.
* * *
By election day 2006, many Americans were angry at what George W. Bush's war on terror had become. Instead of going after the terrorists who had ripped a hole in the American psyche on September 11, 2001, the United States was now bogged down in a seemingly endless conflict in Iraq, where American soldiers were targets of warring factions in a civil insurgency. The electorate's disillusionment was palpable: Poll after poll had shown that Americans were ready to get out of Iraq. But the president and his Republican allies in Congress had retreated to a position of defending the war at all costs while accusing the war's critics of wanting to cut and run. The debate became increasingly frustrating. Even as the violence escalated in Iraq, the president and his administration seemed impervious to any arguments that contradicted their stay-the-course narrative.
It's customary for voters going to the polls in midterm elections to send a message of disapproval to the incumbent in the White House. Over the past seventeen midterm elections, dating back to 1942, the party holding the White House has lost an average of twenty-eight House seats, and an average of four seats in the Senate. November 2006 would be no different. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Democrats were going to take control of the House of Representatives and that some of the Republican incumbents in the Senate had no chance of getting reelected. It had been months since any poll had shown Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the Senate's third-ranking Republican, within single digits of his challenger, Robert Casey Jr., the state auditor general and son of a legendary former governor.
Running in Virginia against incumbent George Allen, Jim Webb was easily the most unusual of the 2006 Democratic challengers. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a marine captain in Vietnam, secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, and a successful novelist, he was an unusual political figure—and hardly a Democrat at all. In Vietnam he earned the Navy and Marine Corps' second-highest honor, the Navy Cross, as well as a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He got into the race, he said, after he watched the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Webb's wife, Hong Le Webb, who escaped South Vietnam with her family when she was seven years old after the fall of Saigon in 1975, grew up in New Orleans.)
Webb had to survive a Democratic primary in which he was not the official party choice. He'd had to answer questions about whether he was truly a Democrat and about his controversial writings on the role women have and should play in the U.S. military. His defense of Air Force officers involved in the sexual assault scandal known as Tailhook in 1991 seemed to be especially problematic. Webb was a fierce critic of the administration and the war in Iraq. His grown son, Jimmy, was an army captain serving in Iraq, and Webb wore his son's combat boots throughout the campaign.
After Webb won the March primary, he trailed Allen, widely seen as one of the front-runners for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, by double digits. On August 11, 2006, the race was closer, but with Allen clearly ahead. That day the senator confronted a Webb campaign volunteer, uttering words that would become infamous. Campaigning in far southwest Virginia, near the Kentucky border, Allen turned the crowd's attention to S. R. Sidarth, a twenty-year-old University of Virginia student of Indian descent who had been trailing him for weeks: "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great," Allen said. The crowd laughed. Later he added: "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
Sidarth, born and raised in Virginia, had captured the entire episode on his camcorder, and the moment ended not only Allen's reelection bid, but also his shot at the presidency. "Macaca" quickly became a synonym for political self-destruction. Allen, a former governor and the son of a legendary Washington Redskins football coach, at first claimed that he didn't know what he meant by the word and then refused to apologize for ten days. When it was reported that the word is a common racial epithet used among the French in North Africa, Allen apologized. Allen's mother grew up in Tunisia. Suddenly, Webb was in striking distance—inside the margin of error in many polls.
* * *
On the eve of the November 2006 elections in Minnesota, any clear understanding about how fundamentally the country had changed was missing from all the analyses. The prevailing intelligence held that the country was closely divided politically and that President Bush and the Republicans still had an advantage on issues of national security and dealing with international terror.
In Ohio, Republican senator Michael DeWine, a two-term incumbent whose moderate views once made him a perfect fit for his state, trailed and could never seem to get any traction against his challenger, Representative Sherrod Brown. Brown was a liberal U.S. congressman from Cleveland, a man whose strong opposition to free trade (he would renegotiate NAFTA and other trade agreements because he felt that they lacked proper labor and environmental standards and therefore put American workers at a disadvantage) and vocal support of gay rights positioned him on the party's left and had, before 2006, made many Ohioans wonder whether he could get elected statewide.
And in Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, the only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq war, found himself in a tight race for reelection, despite the fact his name was political gold in the state where his father had served as governor and been elected to the Senate four times. Chafee went into election day with approval ratings in the high sixties and still lost to former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. According to the day's exit polls, about 40 percent of Americans said they had cast their votes in direct opposition to the president.
From the outset of the election season, the Democrats got lucky; not a single one of their incumbents seemed to be really in trouble. Six months before election day, the most imperiled seat looked to be the one in Minnesota being vacated by department store heir Mark Dayton. Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, concluded that "the contest to succeed [Dayton] is likely to become a classic open seat struggle in which everything from candidate quality of campaign competence, fundraising and the overall political climate matters." Duffy noted that Republican candidate Mark Kennedy was "battle-tested by difficult reelection campaigns" and predicted that his race against Democrat Amy Klobuchar would be "hotly contested and is the GOP's best shot at picking up a Democratic seat."
In the end, Mark Kennedy lost by more than 20 percentage points, the biggest margin of defeat in any contested race in 2006. He'd run a terrible campaign. Amy Klobuchar was an ambitious politician, methodical and disciplined, and a woman who actually enjoyed raising money. By the time election day came around, it was no surprise that she won. Klobuchar's win also raised Democratic hopes that they might be able to keep Minnesota in the win column in the 2008 presidential contest, after having won it only narrowly in 2004.
Klobuchar, a state prosecutor in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, seemed the perfect candidate for Minnesota. She knew the state well, and its people knew her; she was entirely comfortable with herself, and she was a hard worker. Still, only a few months before the election, her most urgent ambition was to be state attorney general.
In Tennessee, Republican Bob Corker was locked in a close race with Congressman Harold Ford. The Corker-Ford challenge was closely watched as an indicator of how badly damaged the GOP was going into the election and for the historical potential it held to produce in Ford the first African American senator from the South since Blanche Kelso Bruce, the Reconstruction-era Republican from Mississippi who served one full term in the Senate from 1875 to 1881. In 1879, Bruce, a former slave, became the first African American to preside over the Senate.
One particular television advertisement during that election caused a stir. The ad, financed by the Republican National Committee, seemed to intentionally link Ford to white women in an effort to undermine him with voters who might still disapprove of the idea of interracial relationships—particularly the sexually charged idea of black men with white women. Corker denounced the ad immediately, and has insisted ever since that poll numbers show it hurt his campaign more than it did Ford. But the specter of racial politics hung over his victory long after election day.
Excerpted from The Upper House by Terence Samuel. Copyright © 2010 Terence Samuel. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
Terence Samuel was the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News&World Report from 2000 to 2005. Previously, he was a reporter and New York bureau chief at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a director of news programming at America Online and a political columnist for The American Prospect. Formerly, he was deputy editor of The Root, The Washington Post's online magazine of opinion and analysis aimed at African American readers. He is currently editor-at-large at The Root and senior correspondent for The American Prospect.He has appeared on PBS's Washington Week, CNN, CNN International, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as on international media outlets BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Terence Samuel was the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News&World Report from 2000 to 2005. Previously, he was a reporter and New York bureau chief at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a director of news programming at America Online and a political columnist for The American Prospect. Formerly, he was deputy editor of The Root, The Washington Post’s online magazine of opinion and analysis aimed at African American readers. He is currently editor-at-large at The Root and senior correspondent for The American Prospect. He is the author of The Upper House. He has appeared on PBS’s Washington Week, CNN, CNN International, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as on international media outlets BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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This book would be more informative if the author delved into more legislative details about the freshman senators of 2006. Instead, he focuses on personal anecdotes that are fun to read but generally not all that informative. On the other hand, he presents the Senate as a degenerating, ineffective institution by only giving examples of contention and disagreement. While the Senate is indeed split along party lines right now, the book would be less biased if it showed both sides of the issue. Overall: Do not read if you are looking for a detailed account of the legislative process. If you are looking for something lighter and maybe easier to read, this wouldn't be the worst choice.