Wanted: A Few Big Thinkers
By Debra Kozikowski
Born and raised in Massachusetts, I just can’t help but get a little misty over the loss of Senator Ted Kennedy. I look at the field vying to replace him and realize that Tom Brokaw was totally on the money when he wrote about how “the greatest generation” gave America their all and that they did so from the factory floor to the floor of the U.S. Senate.
More recently, David Rogers posted an essay on what it is that we’ll have to learn to live without in The lost Senate. Good manners and discussing the issues while maintaining civility has given way to a new rocket launcher world of politics where the legislative agenda fires up more than heated debate. Too often things degenerate to hot-headed shouting in both chambers of Congress. Watching C-Span feels a little like mud-wrestling lately and I find myself wondering if there’s anyone to represent a new generation of “big thinkers” because that is what the New Senate needs.
Not that the candidates here in Massachusetts aren’t fine people but they don’t carry the weight of a Kennedy, a Byrd, or a Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic side or a Chafee, a Heinz or a John Warner on the Republican side. When it comes to political figures, America has survived the changing of the guard many times in history, but the outlook for finding another National Treasure in our midst seems dim.
There is light in this tunnel I’m stuck in and the big surprise is that it comes not from either of the left coasts but from Minnesota. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Al Franken both currently enjoy record breaking popularity in their state. She’s likeable, smart and funny — people in her state obviously like the way she’s doing her job. I was lucky enough to hear Senator Klobuchar speak last year and to interact with her. I liked what she had to say and I liked her. But it’s the professional laugh getter who has my hopes up. For someone who started his career as a comedian, Minnesota’s Al Franken seems to be one of the most serious minded senators elected in the 2008 crop.
Maybe it’s because his win was harder gained than most of his colleagues. His first piece of legislation is the Service Dogs for Veterans Act. Working to pass a bill that, in effect, provides pet therapy may sound like a funny way to start building an illustrious career in the U.S. Senate but if one injured soldier benefits from being paired with a service dog, Senator Franken will have shown that thinking big often means taking chances.
Not that there aren’t a few other bright bulbs in the New Senate’s chandelier. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia has a reputation for building bipartisan coalitions based on his smart, centrist view of the world. He’s a liberal with a lower case l who considered running for the presidency but ended up settling on the senate for now. If he stays put, he has great potential to become a strong populist voice — but my guess is that he won’t stay put.
And from here in New England, Jeanne Shaheen is an intelligent, pro-choice, pro-education, pro-universal health advocate who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks — even in a roomful of people who might disagree with her. She’s no Ted Kennedy yet, but who says the next Lion of the Senate can’t be a lioness?
There are others … the mountain climbing freshman Senator Mark Udall from Colorado and his first cousin who is also a hiker, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico. Both are environmentalists and part of a political family dynasty. They have the genes to stick it out and become stalwarts of the New Senate. Working as a team in taking on the biggest challenge of our generation, fighting for the survival of the planet itself — they could be formidable and much more than a footnote in history.
Here’s the US Senate official site where you can find the names of every U.S. Senator currently serving in the 111th Congress. Look it over, do a little googling and feel free to let me know if anyone strikes you as having the potential to replicate what we’ve lost in the Senate over these last few years. Meanwhile, I can only hope that whoever wins the special election here in Massachusetts is ready to work as hard as they can to follow in Ted Kennedy’s legislative footsteps. And they’d best be wearing some comfortable shoes because it’s going to be a very long walk to get there.