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.
Consider also the career of J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose Benton-like opposition to the Vietnam War endeared him powerfully to the antiwar Eastern establishment. But it rankled many of his constituents, and in 1974, his party expelled him in favor of an equally forceful politician, Governor Dale Bumpers, who had managed to stay more in line with voter sentiment. Fulbright had dominated his state’s politics from the Senate for thirty years before his fall.
What can we say about the career-ending fate of such politicians of high character and extensive accomplishment? Perhaps one thing is that politicians should take care to not overstay their political welcome. This isn’t always easy to determine. One can’t know for sure that his welcome has expired until he gets rejected by the voters. But Lugar, for example, is eighty years old, and he was asking Indianans to keep him in power past his eighty-sixth birthday. Almost by definition, this can be viewed as perhaps asking too much.
Compare that with the retirement decision of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who represented his state in the Senate for thirty years in two stints (interrupted by his having to relinquish his seat when he ran for president in 1964). In 1986, at age seventy-seven, Goldwater voluntarily departed the Senate with dignity, collecting ample expressions of respect and commendation on his way out. In the process, he rendered a strong acknowledgement that the seat belonged to the people of his state, not to him.
But usually the forced retirement of a veteran senator can be attributed to fluctuations in political sentiment, as in the case of Benton. For Lugar, the conventional wisdom is that his even temperament and penchant for working collegially with opposition Democrats did him in during a time of intense partisanship and political rancor. This no doubt is true up to a point but is probably a bit too simplistic.
The country today is in a vise of political deadlock, with more and more Americans concluding that the old elites have failed the nation and that status quo forces are thwarting the actions needed to move it forward. That is the meaning of the Tea Party movement (from the Right) and the Occupy movement (from the Left). Americans pushing this populist sentiment are looking for a political idiom that captures their anger at those who fostered and then benefited from the Great Recession. They want from their politicians some evidence that they understand what went wrong and how the nation’s underlying dysfunction can be remedied, how its looming fiscal hurricanes can be subdued.
Indiana voters got from Lugar no such idiom and no such evidence. He projected himself as the same politician he had always been, as if he perceived no change of any particular consequence in the body politic and therefore felt no particular need to adjust his rhetoric or methods.
Commentator Mark Shields once wrote, "Politics is always about the future, never about the past." Lugar became a man of the past. True, even as a man of the past, he merits immense respect for his profound contributions to his state and nation. But in our unsentimental system, men of the past usually aren’t retained in political office. That’s why Indiana’s Republican primary voters, without rancor or emotion, removed Lugar from the Senate seat he had held, honorably, for thirty-six years.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, is due out on June 26 from Simon & Schuster.