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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Leader of the Pack

“I want to be able to go out at the top of my game…I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter.” – Baseball fan Harry Reid on his decision to retire from the Senate.

It is often said that being president of the United States is the “toughest job in the world.” If that is true then being the Senate Majority Leader is certainly the second toughest job in Washington, D.C.


Harry Reid did the job longer than most and during a time – he shares the blame, of course – that marked one of the most partisan periods in the history of the Senate. Now in the minority, Reid announced last week that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

Reid’s expected successor as Democratic leader, hand-picked it seems by the former boxer from Searchlight, Nevada, is New York Senator Charles Schumer who, one could expect, will extend the sharply partisan tone once his desk is directly across the aisle from Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A Rare Big State Leader…

Schumer, should he be successful in replacing Reid next year, will be the first Senate leader in either party (majority or minority leader) to hail from New York. In fact, it is a historical

curiosity that the leaders of both parties in the Senate most often come from smaller states; states like Harry Reid’s Nevada.

The role of “Senate leader” is relatively new, at least in the long history of the United States Senate. The first formally designated “leader” was elected by the then-minority caucus of Democrats is 1919. The “Majority leader” title at that time was only informally conveyed on Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who also chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. The GOP majority made “the leader” an official designation in 1923 and since that time politicians from smaller states have for the most part occupied the top jobs in the Senate.

Of the biggest states, only Illinois has had two senators, Republican Everett Dirksen and Democrat Scott Lucas, in leadership. Meanwhile, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas have each had two senators in top jobs, while South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Indiana, Oregon, Arizona and Mississippi each have had senators in leadership.

There are but a handful of exceptions to the small state leadership rule, most notably Texas (Lyndon Johnson), California (William Knowland), Pennsylvania (Hugh Scott) and, very briefly, Ohio (Robert Taft). Schumer will be another exception. Interestingly, with the exception of LBJ (who held a leadership position for eight years) and Scott (minority leader for six year) none of the big state leaders have held the job for long.

The longest serving leader remains Montana’s Mike Mansfield who served for sixteen years, all

as majority leader. By the time Reid is done, at least in terms of longevity, he’ll be in the company of Arkansas’ Joseph T. Robinson (fourteen years) and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd and Kentucky’s Alben Barkley (twelve years).

It is also interesting that Democratic leaders tend to last longer than Republican leaders. Reid’s tenure in leadership will put him in the top five of longest serving Senate leaders, all Democrats. Republicans Bob Dole of Kansas and Charles McNary of Oregon are the longest serving GOP Senate leaders, each having served eleven years.

So, why do smaller states tend to produce more Senate leaders? Could the Senate as an institution have a bias against senators from larger states? Could it be that serving as a senator from a large population state is more demanding than doing the same job in a smaller state therefore leaving more time for other duties like herding Senate cats as a leader?

My own theory – unburdened by any real evidence – is that small state senators just might be better at the skills of “retail” politics; the meeting and greeting, remembering names and faces, the attention to details that Mansfield, Johnson, Dole and Howard Baker put to such good use. Perhaps small state senators also regularly meet more voters, hold more town hall meetings, deal with more small town mayors and eat more tough chicken at Rotary Club meetings. Senators from larger states tend to operate on a more “wholesale” basis, often communicating with constituents largely through the media. Perhaps they just aren’t as good at the “soft” people skills that make for good leaders.

Mike’s Approach…

The legendary Mansfield’s approach to his job as a U.S. senator might support my thesis. Mansfield, a bit of a loner all his life, would routinely show up in various Montana cities,

smoking his pipe, sitting alone in a coffee shop or hotel lobby just waiting to be engaged by a voter and “accepting conversation from whoever happened by.” Mansfield’s biographer Don Oberdorfer has written that the then-Senate Majority Leader’s “favorite haunt in the university town of Missoula was the Oxford Bar and Grill, where gambling took place in the basement, reachable through a meat locker.”

Mansfield became legendary in the Senate for his ability to listen, understand competing points of view and treat everyone with patience and respect. Did he hone those skills sitting at the bar of the Oxford in Missoula?

In the rarified, clubby environment of the U.S. Senate, people skills – modesty, ability to listen, empathy, and fairness – still matter, even in this age of poisonous partisanship. I suspect it also helps to know how to find the card game going on in the basement.

Tomorrow: Love him or hate him, Harry Reid leaves a substantial legacy.

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