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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Eagleton-Baker advice to the Senate still holds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2009 - The Senate, like the rest of the American government, faces a daunting set of challenges amid the mix of crises confronting our country. Solutions may be difficult to find, yet they are likely to prove particularly elusive if the Senate conducts its work in the increasingly partisan fashion that has characterized our politics in recent decades.

Instead, the Senate might take to heart the advice of two wise men who spoke to it on April 6, 1989, 20 years ago today, in a special session to celebrate the Senate's bicentennial. To mark that occasion, the Senate invited two former members, one Democrat and one Republican, to address the body, an extraordinary privilege. The honor was coveted, and there were many eminent figures who had served in the Senate during the prior 30 years or so who might have been chosen. The two outstanding members who were selected were Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo., and Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

Baker and Eagleton shared several traits that made them appropriate for the honor and that make their words worth considering today. Surely, they were among the most intelligent and thoughtful public servants to have served in the Senate during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Both were consummate politicians who were committed to the principles of their respective parties. Yet, both were willing to take unpopular and politically risky positions when the public interest so dictated.

A connoisseur of art, Eagleton took his theme from the Robert Whitechurch lithograph that hung on the south wall in the Democratic Cloakroom and in the old Senate Chamber. The lithograph depicted the compromise of 1850 when Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun tried to save the Union one last time. Their efforts were doomed but the failure of that attempt did not discredit the enterprise of political compromise more generally, Eagleton suggested.

On the contrary, Eagleton counseled that "compromise is de facto woven into the constitutional fabric of this nation." For Americans are "a people of widely divergent and strongly held views whose representatives are charged with keeping disagreements from destroying our government's capacity to function effectively."

In some circles, Eagleton acknowledged, compromise had become a dirty word viewed as tantamount to a "sellout." That was not Eagleton's view. Rather, "compromise was "the essence of our political existence," he told his former colleagues, "the grease for the skids of government." Intransigence paralyzed government, but compromise allowed it to function. "That government's life force -- what makes it work and endure -- is our capacity to accommodate differences and to find a way beyond parochial, partisan and ideological concerns to live together as a free nation."

In concluding, Eagleton told his former colleagues that the moral of the Whitechurch lithograph was that "without some accommodation and compromise, our government cannot function, and we will not be able to preserve the values we hold in common and in trust for future generations."

Baker chose a different, but related, theme. In giving senators a six-year term, "the largest in elective politics," the Constitution gave them a special responsibility. Their insulation gave them the opportunity to help cool national passions. It encouraged them to take "the historic view" and invited "heroic judgment."

Senators had responsibilities to their states but they also had a larger duty to the nation that included setting aside partisan differences to work in partnership with the president to advance the national interest. The nation suffered when that partnership disintegrated.

The Constitution, Baker pointed out, gave the Senate a special role regarding treaties and appointments to high governmental office but Baker suggested a more extensive partnership. He recalled how his father-in-law and one of his predecessors as the Republican Senate leader, Everett Dirksen, worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Baker urged the Senate to rediscover "the nature of friendship and civility and understanding and partnership between this body and the executive authority of the government of the United States."

The insights of Baker and Eagleton are, if anything, more timely today than they were 20 years ago this date. Amid a daunting array of problems that threaten our national security, our economic viability and the survival of life on our planet, it is distressing to see some senators who seem more inclined to score partisan points rather than participate in a constructive effort to seek common-sense solutions.

One would hope instead that they would seek to forge accommodations so that future generations will have no less opportunity than the fortunate among today's adult generations have had. One would expect them to recognize that none of us can afford another failed presidency and to commit themselves to forming partnerships, with each other and with the president, to help assure our country's success during this one.

Such a course would be consistent with the sage advice Eagleton and Baker gave 20 years ago. Senators would do well to accept them as models for public service in our time just as the Senate did when it marked the anniversary of a singular political institution.

Joel K. Goldstein is an authority on the vice presidency and a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law. 

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