Most seemingly endless U.S. Senate careers end with a whimper rather than a bang.
When Dennis House, the moderator of “Face the State” on WFSB Channel 3, asked Senator Joe Lieberman how he would like to be remembered by history upon his retirement, Mr. Lieberman said the question put him in mind of Winston Churchill who, when asked a similar question, said he thought he would be well remembered because he himself intended to write the history of his time and place. Immediately, Mr. Lieberman, perhaps familiar with Mr. Churchill’s voluminous writings, said he didn’t know about writing history himself, but…
Mr. Lieberman, the author of seven books -- The Power Broker (1966), a biography of the late Democratic Party chairman, John Bailey; The Scorpion and the Tarantula (1970), a study of early efforts to control nuclear proliferation; The Legacy (1981), a history of Connecticut politics from 1930 to 1980; Child Support in America (1986), a guidebook on methods to increase the collection of child support from delinquent fathers; In Praise of Public Life (2000); An Amazing Adventure (2003), reflections on his 2000 vice presidential run; and The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath (2011) -- can turn a phrase, and he is a close student of history. In that sense, while by no means as prolific as Mr. Churchill, Mr. Lieberman could be, out of office and free to roam the historical range, a man as dangerous as he is thoughtful.
So given to cogitation is the senator, that someone here in Connecticut once flung at him the sobriquet “The Hamlet of the Senate,” which stuck.
Some of Mr. Lieberman’s more recent hobby horses are term limits -- he likes them --the extreme partisanship that has made co-operation in the U.S. Senate less possible -- he hates it -- and the Electoral College -- he’d prefer the president be elected by popular vote. In the course of his 23 years in the Senate, Mr. Lieberman has changed his mind or emphasis on all three issues; but, as the transcendentalists tell us, to become perfect is to have changed often. Extreme partisanship destroys collegiality, in Mr. Lieberman’s view, and the Electoral College distorts the sovereignty of voters. Out of office, Mr. Lieberman’s preferences are not likely to carry much weight. Term limits are a positive good because they prevent congressional sclerosis; of course, you must have some people in the Senate who know what they’re doing, Mr. Lieberman hastened to add.
One senses the senator has not thought deeply on the question of partisanship. Suppose – just to suppose – that one of the two major parties dedicated itself to a daily revision of the U.S. Constitution, so that the Constitution could once and forever be rescued from autodidacts who insist that the document strengthens the liberty of the people by imposing restraints on fashionable ambitions. Given such a circumstance, would not Mr. Lieberman yearn for a principled partisan opposition?
During his retirement, removed from the congressional theatre of action and inaction, Mr. Lieberman may in time produce something worthwhile on such enduring subjects. Distance clears the mind wonderfully, and a thing seen from the outside often wears a different appearance than the same thing seen from the inside, as Churchill well knew. Partisanship is related to political parties. A certain measure of partisanship must be allowed if one is to have parties at all. The abolition of political parties, some argue, would usher in political anarchy rather than the utopia envisioned by radical thinkers in the United States who continue to believe, apparently sincerely, that parties are a bar to right reason and efficient government.
Political parties are, in fact, a bar to tyranny as understood by the vanishing breed of Republicans in the age of the Caesars, many of whom longed for a restoration of the old Roman Republic. While the most representative form of government, democracy is also the weakest, subject always to popular demagogues and populists soon lifted aloft to tend the Republic and make the trains run on time. Like constitutions, vibrant political parties are a bar to overweening ambition. For those who do not believe in a politics of limits, the weakening of political parties opens the door to what one might call magical political thinking, rooted in the immodest notion that for congresspersons and presidents, as for God, all things are possible.