- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

Will Rogers once said that the Senate was the greatest collection of comedians in the world (actually, it was Congress as a whole, but for purposes of this column the Senate will do). Every time a law is passed it's a joke and every time a joke is told it becomes a law, Rogers said.
The "cave of the winds," as detractors often call it, is where terminal stupidity gets miraculously cured, humility fades into arrogance, and the desire to run the entire country manifests itself in all upon entering the chamber for the first time. It is a place where a member from Nebraska once made a speech conceding that a nominee to the Supreme Court was mediocre, but that mediocre people needed representation on the Supreme Court, too, and an Oregon senator once called one from Indiana a "rancid tub of ignorance," not an unfair description, and two others argued for hours over the sex of the statue on top of the U.S. Capitol dome.
The validation of this assessment, admittedly a bit harsh, was never more evident than a number of years ago, when a Southern senator accused by an obscure magazine of being the dumbest man in the upper house called a press conference to deny it.
Now and then, however, to paraphrase the humorist Kin Hubbard, people do send an intelligent person to the Senate. In 40 years of observation, one can think of such luminaries as Mike Mansfield of Montana and John Williams of Delaware and Robert Dole of Kansas and Howard Baker of Tennessee and Everett Dirksen of Illinois and John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard Lugar of Indiana and Phillip Hart of Michigan and Lyndon Johnson of Texas and, yes, Robert Kennedy of New York (a difficult concession for me to make) and Russell Long of Louisiana and Alan Simpson of Wyoming and George Mitchell of Maine. They are among the best and brightest.
There are many others, of course, but none stands out among those currently in charge of what often is referred to as the most exclusive club in the world. That's unfortunate at a time when the country is desperately in need of congressional wisdom to complement the strong leadership so far being exerted from the White House. Bipartisanship has little domestic application except when it comes to terrorism. So don't expect much more on thorny issues for the rest of this election year. The current partisan bickering makes that clear.
The ranks of really qualified lawmakers are so thin that when one of them does decide he or she has had enough of the charade, it is a major trauma not only to their party but to the importance and efficiency of the institution.
That's certainly the case with Sen. Fred Thompson, who has announced he will not seek re-election. The Tennessee Republican has over the course of his two terms stood at least a foot taller than most of his colleagues in intellect and in dedication, not to mention physically.
Mr. Thompson and his party's leadership have not seen eye-to-eye on several issues over the last few years, some of the bitterness stemming from the former prosecutor's strong efforts to get at the bottom of the Clinton administration's allegedly illegal fund-raising activities. Mr. Thompson's refusal to draw a distinction between the indiscretions of his own party and those of the Democrats infuriated Republican leaders, and he, in turn, felt betrayed by them.
Actually, leaders of both parties were afraid of the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician who had shown his toughness and tenacity and honesty as the Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee three decades ago.
They had reason to be. It was Mr. Thompson who asked Alexander Butterfield about the existence of an Oval Office taping system. The answer in open session ultimately blew the roof off the Nixon White House.
Mr. Thompson's decision to quit also influenced by boredom, a malady that often afflicts the brightest members, and a desire to be closer to his family leaves not only a large hole in the Republican ranks, it is a blow to party hopes of recapturing the majority. Tennessee's strong Republican base may elect former governor and presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, but it will be a much more difficult task than if Mr. Thompson had stood for re-election.
Meanwhile, the Senate grinds on, making little progress on anything, except campaign finance reform, with the Democratic leaders frantically trying to overcome President Bush's historically high job approval ratings with threats of subpoenas for White House aides like Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, and the Republicans whining about the obstructionism of the majority.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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