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Much of the spirit behind William S. White's attempt to describe the essence of the often vexingly incomprehensible United States Senate is revealed in a remark he quotes, made by Lyndon Johnson. "If you can't smell a feeling, you are no kind of a politician." Neither, one senses, does Mr. White feel you're much of a reporter unless you can do the same.
His account is thus personal rather than institutional. White says, "the Senate is in a sense a high assembly but in a deeper sense it is a great and unique human consensus of individual men." And so he looks at the Senate, ninety-six inscrutable prima donnas, "with all its strengths and weaknesses rather as one would try to deal with the story of an extraordinary and significant man."
The Senate is not future-minded, Mr. White emphasizes. It values caution and tradition. It scorns conformity. It is unimpressed with the success of which a man like Charles E. Wilson is so proud. "Any damn fool," White quotes a Senator's recent comment "can make a million dollars." The Senate is not interested in speed, or in majority rule, or in bigness for its own sake.
But it is interested in what White calls "the first necessity of the American political method--the necessity to compromise the demands of the sections and the interests." And perhaps the most important element of this compromise is the personal accommodation between members which Mr. White feels governs the Senate's life.
Much of this accommodation is due to the influence of a group which White calls the "Inner Club" (as opposed to the Outer Club, which is the whole Senate). This is a group of men who "belong" in the Senate, who love it, and who, by a combination of inclination and political fortune, make their life there. These men are tolerant of one another, but aware of what they consider "proper" for a Senator. Their philosophy accounts for both the long time it took to punish Senator McCarthy, even for plain violations of our political tradition, and the way he was finally punished (for disrespect to fellow members and bringing disrepute on the Senate).
A member of this club often gets support for bills simply because he "wants" it. The Inner Club will often kill a measure because the Club wasn't consulted. An Inner Club man is a Senate man, rather than a party man or a President's man. That is why he will not protest Senator Knowland's attacks on Eisenhower's Asian policy. These attacks emphasize the Senate's independence.
Hubert Humphrey is a club member along with such conservatives as Theodore Green and Harry Byrd. How did Humphrey get there? You will remember him for his floor fight at the 1948 Democratic convention (in defiance of agreements among party leaders) to get a firm civil rights plank in the platform. He has since learned to compromise. Lest you shudder (White feels that a Senator must "accommodate" to be effective), it should be noted that this compromise may have considerably speeded up the chances of some civil rights laws.
Besides his analysis of the Inner Club whose existence explains much of the perplexing nature of the Senate, White discusses Senate committees and investigations, and hits the Senate roundly for recent violations of basic civil rights. He cites both Kefauver and McCarthy. But he also gives an example of Senate investigation at its best: The MacArthur firing hearings (run by Inner Club chieftain Richard Russell) in 1951.
White has presented a sensitive picture of an institution baffling to non-experts in politics, to those who desire speedy change, and above all, to young people. In doing so, he incidentally has made public a process which usually goes on inside the reporter's head: the attempt to uncover the essence of what he's reporting about.
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