Senate proves that civility, class remain elusive

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    Sen. Sam Ervin, right, chairs the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. At left is Fred Thompson, then a minority counsel and later a senator himself. At center is Sen. Howard Baker.


  • WE TAKE one step forward in civility and class. But then we take two steps back.

    If the various memorial services last week for the late Sen. John McCain, especially the one at the National Cathedral, in essence a state funeral, showed us what our politics could be, the Senate hearings on Brent Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, showed us what our politics have become: Comic opera.

    Sen. Sam Ervin, right, chairs the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. At left is Fred Thompson, then a minority counsel and later a senator himself. At center is Sen. Howard Baker.
    Sen. Sam Ervin, right, chairs the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. At left is Fred Thompson, then a minority counsel and later a senator himself. At center is Sen. Howard Baker.

    Actually, that is too dignified a characterization. The hearings were comic opera if the Three Stooges made an opera.

    The hearings were low comedy, devoid of wit, and with more slapping around than clever slapstick.

    The farce featured a chairman who could not control his committee or the room; Democrats virtually united in only one tactic — interruption and disruption; and protesters, some of them paid, hooting and screaming with little ceasing.

    It was an embarrassment, a zoo, and an all-too-sad antidote to the nobility of the McCain tributes, which ex-Sen. Joe Lieberman called Mr. McCain’s last gift to the nation.

    John McCain’s beloved Senate just smashed that gift into tiny pieces. Is it any wonder that the citizens of the country have turned away from the political establishment and have no faith in the Congress? The establishment failed them, is failing again, and still doesn’t understand that the people get this.

    I am thinking of one of Mr. McCain’s last speeches in the Senate, in which he pleaded with his colleagues: Let’s stop the posturing, obstruction and bickering and try to get some things done for the country.

    No dice. Instead the Senate has doubled down on dysfunction.

    In the current political climate there is no chance of Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings in which a serious discussion, for example, of “originalism,” is possible. Originalism is the conservative doctrine that posits the jurist as someone who does not make law, or even interpret it, but only reads it — as if through a clear glass.

    Judge Kavanaugh is, more or less, a proponent of originalism, an interesting if problematic doctrine, just as the old notion of a “living constitution” is interesting and problematic.

    But there was no chance of an honest, thoughtful discussion of the philosophy of law in these hearings.

    The only thing that is possible is more posturing. The Republicans posture as the unblemished advocates of law itself, unsullied by politics, interpretation or opinion. And the Democrats as the tribunes of all that is good, right and decent, including free speech and fair play, both of which they have blatantly violated in these hearings. But it’s OK, because, they say, this mild-mannered judge is another “existential threat” to the republic and a woman’s right to an abortion.

    He is neither, of course.

    Judge Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was simply trying to get through and get past — to not show contempt or blow his stack like Robert Bork did 31 years ago.

    That’s when this madness began. It started with the character and political assassination of Judge Bork, a learned jurist who was obliterated for thinking. But unlike the Bork and Clarence Thomas hearings, which took time to unravel, these hearings were pandemonium from Day 1, Moment 1.

    We ought to think about doing away with Supreme Court nomination hearings altogether. They are a relatively recent practice. They are not only practically useless, they further corrode our politics. Just vote the nominee out of committee and hold the up or down vote on the Senate floor.

    We should also revisit the idea of a wider variety of thinkers on the high court — sociologists, philosophers and politicians. Bring back the politicians. They did as well or better than the Harvard Law School types.

    The courts follow the election returns, as Mr. Dooley said, and sometimes overturn them.

    Let’s begin again, with some intellectual honesty. Honesty is the first cure for cynicism: The high court is about politics. It is politics on a high level, but it is politics.

    What we learned about Mr. Kavanaugh is that he seems to be a decent man, he is reasonably intelligent, he is patient (and will soon have a job for life as a reward), and he is a thoroughly political animal.

    Meanwhile, we can yearn for dignity, which may never return to American public life, or any aspect of American life.

    When I watched the Fulbright Hearings on Vietnam as a kid, and Sam Ervin’s hearings on Watergate as a young man, I knew the country had problems. But those hearings gave me faith in our leaders; faith that we could face our problems and move on; faith in reason. Watching that Senate, I was proud.

    Watching these hearings, I was ashamed. Our leaders are perennial seventh-graders. Their antics are clownish, but not funny. They do not humanize but dehumanize. Yes, Donald Trump has degraded our politics. But it does not begin or end with him.

    Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at or 419-724-6266.