Thomas Hart Benton was one of the greatest U.S. senators who ever lived. He represented Missouri from the moment it joined the Union in 1821 and then held sway over his state’s politics for thirty years. He was a man given to flights of outrage that unleashed torrents of outrageous rhetoric. An imposing man with a big face, full of crags, and a beak of a nose, he spoke with authority and an air suggesting he didn’t have much patience for the mutterings of lesser men, a category that seemed to include most of those with whom he came into contact.
But Missourians loved him for his ironclad independence and fearless political conviction. Though a proud Democrat, he could never be counted on to adhere with any consistency to the party line. He adhered only to the Thomas Hart Benton line. And that endeared him powerfully to his constituents.
Then, in 1850, Benton’s home state turned on him, cast him out of the Senate and unceremoniously kicked him to the political curb. The vagaries of politics caught up with this giant of a politician.
Why? He got caught in a political time warp. A moderate on the increasingly incendiary slavery issue and a staunch unionist, he found his constituents increasingly riled over the northern abolition movement and increasingly hostile to his views. He wouldn’t change them, so the voters replaced him.
Thomas Hart Benton’s political fate comes to mind in the wake of what happened this week to Indiana’s senator Richard Lugar, defeated in his party’s primary after loyally representing his state in the Senate for thirty-six years. Temperamentally, Lugar was nearly the opposite of Benton. The Indiana senator’s style is self-effacing, low-key, given to quietly amassing vast stores of knowledge on complex issues often little understood by the public. But, like Benton, he accumulated immense power in the Senate over many years and served his state precisely as it wished to be served.
When such men are cast aside, it serves as a good occasion to ponder those vagaries of democratic politics that can operate with such unsentimental force and deal so harshly with people who only a short time before were considered part of the nation’s political landscape. Such a man was Lugar, as was Benton.
Such a man also was Washington senator Warren Magnuson, who represented his state in the Senate for thirty-six years before he was tossed out in the 1980 elections that served as a kind of political inflection point for the nation. Voters throughout the country that year gave the Senate to the Republicans for the first time in nearly three decades.
Magnuson is an interesting case in point. So infirm was the seventy-five-year-old senator in the years before the election that he could hardly walk. He made his way through the corridors of the Capitol in what reporters called "the Magnuson shuffle"—sliding his feet across the floor one after the other without managing to lift them above the marble. His campaign sought to nullify this reality by acknowledging that the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman couldn’t get around as quickly as he once did, "but, don’t worry, the Appropriations Committee meetings can’t start until the chairman arrives."
It didn’t work. Voters throughout America concluded by election day that the country needed to move in a new direction, and Washingtonians concluded Magnuson was an impediment to that kind of flexibility. And so his constituents, after electing him with enthusiasm fully six times and keeping him in office for more than a third of a century, discarded him without apology or explanation.