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RAY SUAREZ: And that perspective comes from NewsHour regulars and presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation and former speechwriter and advisor to three Senators.
Well, over the past couple of weeks we’ve covered this change of gavel with the assumption that it’s a pretty big deal. What does our own past tell us whether this can change history, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, in an earlier rare committee chairs had more power, I believe, than they do today. In fact, Woodrow Wilson once said in the late 19th century that we really had a committee by standing committee chairmen – that was governing by standing committee chairmen, rather than the Congress as a whole. I think the reason is that the Senate was more insulated in the old days; it was more hierarchy, more attention to seniority. Their goal was to simply create legislation within the Senate.
They weren’t all running for president. They didn’t have access to television as an alternative source of power. So their power within the Senate was critical. And you could have a situation, for example, when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was able to undo President Woodrow Wilson who had come back from World War I, the most powerful leader in the world perhaps, and yet he couldn’t get the treaty to create the League of Nations through the Senate in part because they had this huge personal animosity.
Lodge knew how to play on Wilson, saying to him, the treaty wasn’t written well and maybe it was okay for a Princeton guy because he had been the president of Princeton, Wilson had, but not for a Harvard guy, which Lodge was. And then Wilson on his turn did just the opposite in same bad personal animosity said I will not change an iota of that treaty; I will crush my opposition. The treaty was lost; Wilson had a stroke, was devastated, and in some ways it led to us Hitler and World War II. So in those days I think the chairmen had much more power than they have, but even today we certainly, as we’ve seen, there’s a great deal of difference in scheduling things and hearings and using your authority but it’s not quite like the old, more insulated days.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s get some more historical examples. Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, she’s right about the seniority problem. It’s no longer just what it was. You can’t just stay there forever. It used to be these guys would come into to take care of the committee for life. They literally sat like a potentate up there; that’s not the case now. But in terms of think about individuals who shape history. Doris talked about Henry Cabot Lodge and the League; in the 1920s it was Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana who led the Teapot Dome investigation that forever changed the American’s impression of Warren Harding.
Harry Truman became vice president because of his investigation of the war effort in those years — a model of investigations. Joe McCarthy — his name is part of the language now, McCarthyism. Estes Kefauver on crime – Bill Fulbright on the Vietnam War — all the way down. Sam Irvin on Watergate. These individual people put a stamp on an era and they made a tremendous difference. They don’t have the power. They did, that’s true. But the fact Senator Levin said they can control the agenda; they can decide what to investigate and they can have the staff to go after things makes a huge difference.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And, you know, the other thread that runs through all this is that there are big cases in when presidents have not managed the relationship with these very powerful committee chairmen. Doris mentioned Henry Cabot Lodge. Woodrow Wilson during much of the time that we’re talking about was ill in bed in the White House, which probably even increased his instincts or inflexibility. Lyndon Johnson with William Fulbright had this great personal feud that prevented Johnson from going to Fulbright’s office and saying can’t we somehow have a policy on Vietnam that you and I can come together on. But, you know, there is one case in which a president really did handle it right, and that’s Arthur Vandenburg after World War II.
Vandenburg was from Michigan – I should say with Richard Norton Smith up there in Michigan — was a prewar isolationist, would have been just the kind of person you would have expected after the war to say Americans should come back — not be involved abroad. Truman was able to talk to Vandenburg — get him come to his point of view so that in 1946, when the Republicans took over the Senate, Vandenburg became a foreign relations chairman, Vandenburg supported the Marshal Plan — later on NATO, the foundations of the strategy that won the Cold War. I don’t think it’s too much so say that if Truman had not been so deft, Vandenburg could have obstructed him and we might have actually lost the Cold War.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Norton Smith, you’ve worked with Bob Dole over the years, certainly as finance committee chairman as Ronald Reagan was trying to get that tax cut through. It made some difference who the Finance Committee chairman was.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It did make a difference. There is a famous story on election night 1980 –everyone was surprised Republicans picked up 11 seats in the Senate and that meant that Russell Long, the long-term chairman of the Finance Committee, would be replaced by Bob Dole. Howard Baker called Dole in the middle of night to tell him. Dole said, well, that’s great, Howard, but who’s going to tell Russell.
And in fact, Long was so entrenched in that job when they had the first vote the first divided vote of that committee and they called for the chairman, Long voted. And he realized he had made a mistake. He went on to say I not only vote with my chairman; I vote for my chairman. That was entrenched power. There was a time Lyndon Johnson used to refer to committee chairmen as herd bulls. And the cattle there is no doubt are much willing to be herded around today.
But the experience of Harry Truman like we talked about with Vandenburg – Truman got the worst as well as the best because it is true of course in that so called beef steak election of 1946, Republicans took Congress for the first time in 16 years. Vandenburg said to Truman that if you want us with you on the landing make sure you’re with us on the takeoff. That’s exactly the origins of Communist containment and NATO – the Marshal Plan, et cetera – Bob Taft, Mr. Conservative, hero of the conservatives, Mr. Republican, that is, decided he could have any committee chairmanship he wanted. He took the Labor Committee. That was no accident. He wrote what became known as Taft Hartley, which imposed all kinds of restrictions upon organized labor. Truman vetoed the bill. It was overridden in both Houses, and it is with us still today.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this something that’s changed over time? The committee system is about 185 years old. When presidents were weaker, were committee chairmen stronger, or did everybody sort of get stronger together as government got bigger?
HAYNES JOHNSON: We had what Doris talked about Woodrow Wilson – he wrote a great book on congressional government. That’s basically what we had in 1960; Congress ran the thing. The presidency was not the overpowering office that it has been since Franklin Roosevelt in his period. The one thing that’s changed is the role of television – the fact that you can have a hearing and if you can get people to come to that hearing, that can be a springboard for your issue number one or your personality, number two, or maybe your presidency, number three.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Haynes is absolutely right. I mean, in some ways Fulbright’s power as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came from those televised hearings on Vietnam. Of course, Johnson didn’t like that and used to called Fulbright half bright as a way of getting back at the idea that Fulbright was able to organize the opposition to the war because of television. But I think what’s interesting today even with the reduced power perhaps of the Chairman; particularly in the House I think it’s reduced. It used to be much more authoritarian in the House. They’ve passed rules where there are more subcommittees; there are more ways of getting bills out of committees than there used to be. But a committee chairman who has savvy and power still has power.
I mean, look at Wilbur Mills. Not so long ago he had such power over that tax legislation on Ways and Means no bill could ever get to the floor unless he allowed it to the floor and he would never let it get to the floor unless he was certain there would be no amendments, because his pride was involved. In fact, Lyndon Johnson used to say he was so concerned with saving his face that he’s going to lose his ass someday. Then, of course, the irony was that his career ended when he was in the reflecting pond with a striptease person without a lot of clothes on, so Johnson was a great prognosticator of the future.
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I’m sure he did that — unlike many other committee chairmen – (laughter) – but, you know, the other thing was that television broke it down but so did the end of the seniority system because in 1994 for instance when the Republicans came in, they said we’re not going to put six year term limits on our committee chairmen and also we’re going to elect them by secret ballot so you might get some surprises.
And the biggest change of all is that when the seniority system was dominant, there was one group of American society that felt it more than anyone else, and that was black Americans, because most of these chairmen were southerners, very much anti-civil rights, and so for decades – Franklin Roosevelt, who probably would have loved to do something about civil rights, would not even support an anti-lynching bill because he thought that that would kill much of his other legislation in the Senate. John Kennedy in the early 60′s would have liked to send a civil rights bill to Congress — wouldn’t do it because he thought it would stall his programs.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Richard, for all that change, we shouldn’t gloss over the investigations power. Already the new Democratic chairmen are talking about looking into things like spikes in gas prices and the price of natural gas being delivered through pipelines, things like that. The investigations power still end up mattering in 2001 doesn’t it?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And arguably it matters more than ever to television. We live in a 24-hour news cycle and that means there’s 24 hours to fill. The chairmen love that. Setting the agenda — a phrase we have heard ad nauseum for the last couple of weeks — to go back again – when Woodrow Wilson came back with his treaty – the Versailles Treaty and the covet of the League of Nations — it was very popular initially. Henry Cabot Lodge, the brand new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, knew he had to find a way to stop it. So he got up on the floor and read the entire text of the treaty. It took him two weeks – he read very slowly – and he then convened hearings that went on six weeks. By the time he was done he basically began to build up a head of steam of opposition to this thing.
But one point that’s very important, picking up on what Michael said – of course the impact of southern Democrats — we looked at the Armed Services Committee in that film piece. One reason why the Armed Services Committee spoke with one voice so many years was not only because it had the same chairman but because of the enormous influence of southern Democrats who tended by and large to be conservative pro-defense, pro-military. They’re gone, because by and large the southern Democrats – the conservative Democrats are gone from the Senate just as Northeastern and Midwestern Republican liberals are an endangered species. That’s affected the committee system as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Aren’t there niches being filled by a new generation of Republican Senators who are also defending many of those same interests — defense contractors outside of Atlanta, the Pascagoula Shipyards and other places like that?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, sure. There is no doubt special interests have as much as influence as ever on Capitol Hill. But the committee itself no longer speaks with one voice, as it did in the days of Richard Russell and John Stenis or John Tower. There was a continuity that was part of the bipartisan foreign policy – that was part of the idea that this country was literally living day do day under military threat from the Soviet Union and to the Soviet Empire. That’s all gone.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard, Haynes, Michael, Doris, thanks to you all. Thanks to you all.