The New York Times has a fresh angle on the Brett Kavanaugh hearing last week, in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford calmly described the details of her sexual assault, and Kavanaugh and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee threw temper tantrums. The paper’s fresh angle is a reminder that people get angry in the Senate now, and its implication is that we should be very worried about that.
Times reporter Nicholas Fandos writes:
Senate rules dating back to Thomas Jefferson mandate that lawmakers refer to each other by state and title — “my good friend, the senator from California” — and forbid members from questioning motives, maligning a home state or imputing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” Senators are not even supposed to read a newspaper while another member of the body is speaking on the chamber floor.
Few of such niceties have been in evidence as the Senate struggles to fill the Supreme Court seat of the retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Republicans have accused Democrats on the Judiciary Committee of plotting a last-minute smear of Judge Kavanaugh, and have privately argued that the party’s senators demeaned themselves and the body by asking a nominee to the Supreme Court intimate questions about his drinking habits and sexual behavior.
With only circumstantial evidence, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, called for an investigation into whether Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, sat on and then leaked Christine Blasey Ford’s letter accusing Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, has delivered an escalating series of threats to his Democratic counterparts.
Even the nominee himself threatened Democratic senators, warning, “What goes around comes around.”
What do all of these people have in common? They’re Republicans! The piece is littered with examples from the Kavanaugh hearing and its aftermath, such as the demand of Lindsey Graham—who has lost his fucking mind—that Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar apologize to Kavanaugh “for being part of a smear campaign like I have never seen in 20 years in politics.” (Klobuchar, you will remember, asked Kavanaugh if he had ever blacked out last week, to which Kavanaugh sneeringly asked her, the daughter of a man who has a well-documented history of alcoholism, “I don’t know, have you?”)
Despite the clear evidence that only one side is really to blame for all this, Fandos still wearily presents the situation as a bipartisan problem, lamenting the upcoming loss of Civility World Champion and former apartheid lobbyist Jeff Flake and “impending retirements of many of the Senate’s senior-most members in the coming years”—Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley included, I’m guessing—and saying that “younger lawmakers less interested in compromise—like Mr. Cotton, Mr. Cruz and their liberal counterparts—become the norm.” Who, exactly, are these liberal equivalents to Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz?
As Fandos himself acknowledges, Senate behavior that merits a whole New York Times deep dive now is also nowhere near that of Charles Sumner having his head caved in for being an abolitionist. Fandos also notes that the Senate censured Joseph McCarthy in 1954 for accusing everyone within earshot of being a communist. It’s almost like the problem is and always has been the right wing, rather than “decorum.”
That’s not to say that the Senate’s longstanding obsession with civility is exactly good, either. Here’s a great little anecdote from former Hubert Humphrey aide John Stewart about two white Democratic men on each end of the civil rights debate just having a ball in private despite their differences on the Senate floor (emphasis mine):
Mr. Stewart recounted a fiery debate between Mr. Humphrey, who was tasked with advancing the Civil Rights Act, and Senator Absalom Willis Robertson, a pro-segregation Democrat from Virginia. When it was over, he said, Mr. Robertson crossed the Senate floor to stick his confederate battle flag pin on Mr. Humphrey’s lapel — a compliment for a debate well conducted. The two men walked off the floor arm in arm to drink bourbon in Mr. Robertson’s hideaway office.
“It was a club,” Mr. Stewart said in an interview. “You hate to sound like you are just living in the past, but damn it, it was different. It was much more civilized and much more respectful.”
Sorry to burst this old-timey bubble, but believing that black people shouldn’t have rights isn’t just a simple matter of political differences, and the willingness to look at someone who played an active role in resisting civil rights legislation as a friend with whom you happened to have political disagreements was always extremely bad. It’s really no wonder that civil rights leaders were so distrusting of white politicians, even those who purported to be on their side.
In any event, any usefulness that these long treatises on civility in the Senate and American politics at large ever had has long since expired, so long as they’re unwilling to look at the root cause of both that problem and so many other, bigger problems which plague American society: reactionaries.