This new book by Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker offers a wide-ranging, illuminating, and entertaining look back at Senate history. Rather than a straightforward narrative tracing Senate development chronologically, the book is organized thematically. There are chapters on Senate elections, campaign finance, the body’s relationships with the president and the House of Representatives, the development of Senate party leadership, the use of Senate investigations, floor debate practices, the use of the filibuster, and the history of institutional reform efforts.
The subtitle of the book is “An Insider’s History.” The subtitle is well justified, given the long experience of its authors as close-in observers of the Senate. Neil MacNeil was a founding member of the PBS program Washington Week. He covered the Senate beginning in 1949 and later served as Time magazine’s chief congressional correspondent for three decades. Richard A. Baker started work at the Legislative Research Service in 1968 and was the Senate’s official historian from 1975 until his retirement in 2009. The book is the product of many years’ labor. MacNeil had worked on a major manuscript on the Senate for seventeen years, and the work was unfinished when he passed away in 2008. Baker took up the unfinished manuscript, streamlined the chapters, added in new material, and pulled together the final book.
The book does not advance a single thesis, so it is not easy to summarize. The Senate is a body “in transition”—and that has been true throughout its history. There is no trajectory toward either “better” or “worse”—at least not in a global sense, across all aspects of the Senate as an institution. The book celebrates neither the past nor the present. Unlike with many other books on the topic, there is no “golden age of the Senate,” no romanticizing of previous periods when the body was less mired in partisan conflict. The history presented here does not shy away from the vote fraud and demagogic racism that characterized the Democratic party of the Jim Crow era or the irresponsible fear-mongering of the McCarthy era. Many famous senators are described in less-than-flattering terms. The book discusses how Senate’s rules have forced bipartisan compromise, but it doesn’t idealize them. It makes clear that rampant use of the filibuster poses a threat to the institution’s capacity to function.
A book this broad-ranging will be valuable for a variety of purposes. Political junkies will find many great anecdotes that they have never encountered before. There are many well-drawn sketches of important senators of the past, from Dirksen to Mansfield to Conkling to Sumner. People interested in understanding how contemporary Senate practices in various areas evolved can turn to the relevant chapters. History, political science, and civics teachers will find useful examples to give students entree into previous eras. Anyone who reads the book will have a better, more multi-faceted understanding of the Senate and its role in American politics.
The author of a book of this scope will be well prepared to answer most any question about the history and operations of the U.S. Senate. So participants in this discussion should feel free to raise questions to Dick Baker on virtually any subject pertaining to the Senate, past or present.
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