Alex Massie

Who will succeed Kennedy as Master of the Senate?

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Patty Murray, Herb Kohl, Johnny Isakson, Michael Enzi, Mike Crapo, Jeff Bingaman, Tom Carper, Daniel Inouy, Thad Cochrane, Blanche Lincoln...

You need to be a pretty keen political junkie to know that each of these men and women are current members of the United States Senate. Nor have I cheated by including recent arrivals such as Roger Wicker who are still freshmen and, consequently, justifiably unknown to the rest of the country, never mind internationally. Still, its remarkable how many Senators make no impression whatsoever upon Washington. (Of course, one often has cause to regret the impression made by those that do insist upon making waves, news and bad legislation. But still...)

Doubtless the Senate has never been as classy a joint as its members like to think it. Nor has it always been well-stocked with genuinely impressive figures, far less the kind of politicians who might, even if only on their best days, be worthy of the garland "statesman". Rarely, however, can it have seemed so much like a first-rate club with a third-rate membership as it does now.

Whatever else one thinks of him - and his life and record is justly controversial - Teddy Kennedy was a genuine star who, especially once his own Presidential aspirations had faded, came to be the biggest man in the Senate. This wasn't just because of the range of causes he adopted, nor even because his liberalism and his name gave him room to compromise with Republicans (though all this helped) but because he helped make the Senate seem like the kind of institution it desperately wants to be.

Most of the time, however, the "world's greatest deliberative body" is also the world's worst. Now that Kennedy has died, the Senate is still further denuded of genuine talent. Who steps forward now to be the kind of Senator who can actually expect to be listened to respectfully, regardless of the matter under discussion? Who, in short, will lead the Senate?

There aren't too many contenders. Robert Byrd is too old, too odd a figure and, anyway, more interested in Senate procedure and opening Robert C Byrd Memorial highways in West Virginia. (Also, of course, there is the unfortunate KKK membership. Long renounced, but still...) So who else now that Clinton and Obama and Kennedy have all left, stripping the Senate of much of its star quality.

Richard Lugar (R-IN) commands respect, not least for his work on proliferation. But a leader of the Senate? Only maybe. Jim Webb (D-VA) has stature, certainly and a welcome, cussed, independent streak. But he's also only a freshman even if his bearing might suggest otherwise.

Which leaves a pair of failed Presidential candidates. John McCain's been in Washington a long time and he's the darling of the Sunday morning TV shows. But outside foreign policy - where his instincts invariably favour the most reckless course of action - his actual interest in politics sometimes seems lacking and not just because his signature domestic achievement (campaign finance reform) was a dreadful bill. Does McCain really want to lead or does he like the idea of leading more than the reality? Sometimes it's hard to say and McCain tends to be at his best in defeat, not victory.

Which leaves a surprising candidate: John Kerry. Might the mantle of leadership pass from one Massachussetts Senator to another? It seems an unlikely thing to say but it's not impossible. Kerry has a wide range of legislative interests and, like Kennedy, is much better suited, temperamentally, to the legislative than the executive branch.

Like Kennedy, it has taken Kerry 20 years to reach the point at which he could stand and bear the stature he desperately seeks. Now, freed from being overshadowed by Kennedy, Kerry could perhaps, if he wanted it, become the Democratic party's senior statesman. Such a notion might once have seemed strange, given the gawd-help-usness of his Presidential campaign, but much stranger things have happened.

Perhaps it won't happen, but it wouldn't surprise me if John Kerry eventually succeeded - albeit with less fanfare or expectation - Teddy Kennedy as the great Democratic champion in the Senate.

The bigger question, of course, is how a country of 300m can find so few worthwhile people to join a club that only has 100 members.

UPDATE: Tom Schaller makes the point that it wasn't always like this. The Senate Kennedy joined as a freshman in 1963 contained members of the calibre of, among others, Barry Goldwater, Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, William Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy and Carl Hayden. Today's crop? Not so impressive.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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