Friday, September 18, 2009
CONGRESS -- Comity or Comedy?
"The recent fist fight in the United States Senate, precipitated by Senator Tillman of South Carolina, is one of the most disgraceful episodes that ever took place in the upper branch of Congress."
That's a quote from the New York Times, March 2, 1902. Senator Tillman punched his fellow South Carolina senator in the nose. What IS it with these South Carolina congressmen?
In 1850, during heated debates, Senator Foote from Mississippi nearly shot Senator Benton of Missouri while Benton was having a caustic exchange of words with Vice President Millard Fillmore. Foote was wrestled to the floor and disarmed.
You can find a fairly long list of politicians killed in duels at http://politicalgraveyard.com/death/duels.html . Congress, however, didn't pass an anti-dueling bill until 1839, after Representative Cilley of Maine was killed by Representative Graves of Kentucky. The bill was introduced by Henry Clay. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Cilley's graveside memorial.
In June 2004, while members of the Senate were having their photos taken on the Senate floor, Vice President Cheney and Senator Leahy had a heated argument in which Mr. Cheney gave the gentleman from Vermont instructions using the F-word as a verb. Since Senate wasn't technically in session, the rule against cursing and obscenity on the Senate floor didn't apply.
As you can see, U.S. Congressmen have been acting like small spoiled children throughout most of our history. Last week Joe Wilson of South Carolina was merely upholding a long-standing American tradition when he broke congressional decorum rules by heckling a speaker (the rule covers any speaker, not only the President). In Joe's defense: at least he was paying attention. Decorum rules also forbid the use of cell phones or personal computers while someone is speaking, yet I saw a few members texting that evening. They weren't admonished. At least, not by anyone but me.
Joe Wilson did apologize to the President, though when interviewed, he said he did it because the Republican leadership thought he should, and he's since refused to apologize to his co-workers in Congress and to his employers, the taxpayers. I'm not sensing a lot of remorse here. He broke the rules of his workplace. The rest of us would be on unemployment, or at least on probation, if we did that.
What's this got to do with my books? I write historical mysteries set in different eras of American history. Lately I've been reading the political commentary of Will Rogers (for my Great Depression Pat book) and Continental Congress transcripts of 1777 (for a Rev. War thriller). Whatever decade I'm researching, I'm finding that many members of our Congress--our employees--really haven't done good work nor acted as we'd want our employees to act. And yet we let them give themselves raises and award themselves the best benefits, at our expense. Who else would give their employees that kind of power, especially if they only do so-so work and create conflict in the workplace? Okay, maybe baseball team owners. But who else?
In the 1850s, despite the anti-dueling law, Representatives Cutting of New York and Breckinridge of Kentucky decided to settle their dispute with Western rifles at 3 p.m. seven miles outside Washington. That morning, however, they were on the House floor for a vote and accidently met face to face. After a moment of strained silence, Breckinridge said, "Cutting, give me a chew of tobacco!" Without missing a beat, Cutting pulled a plug of tobacco from his pocket and offered it to Breckinridge. That evening Breckinridge returned the favor by having Cutting over to share a bottle of wine. The duel was forgotten.
Those two could teach a lesson to both sides of the current congressional aisle.
"This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer." Will Rogers
Still true today, Will.