The United States Senate is a remarkable place, at once the breeding ground of presidential ambition and the burial ground of presidential hopes. Since World War II, such senatorial giants as Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas have stumbled on the way to the White House, while the only two men to be elected to the White House from the Senate in all of American history have two major distinctions:
They were remarkably handsome. And they were unremarkable senators.
These facts are worth remarking on only because the next three months will determine whether Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts is remembered for "looking like a president" (the only apparent presidential attribute possessed by Warren Harding in 1920) or using the Senate as a forum for his presidential dreams (the tactic used by John F. Kennedy and imitated, without success, by a generation of would-be successors, such as Gary W. Hart of Colorado and John McCain of Arizona).
The odds are against him. Americans like to re-elect presidents, and when they choose not to do so (or can't, because of term limits), they like to elect governors, which is why Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are destined to be remembered beyond the gubernatorial portrait galleries in Atlanta, Sacramento, Little Rock and Austin.
First step is nomination
Even so, Kerry has done what most presidential candidates from the Senate have not: won his party's nomination, a distinction he shares since World War II only with Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern and Dole. (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Al Gore also served as senators, but won their nominations, and much of their contemporary political identity, after terms as vice president.)
Though he's breaking with tradition and not emphasizing his Senate career -- the byline on Kennedy's famous book "Profiles in Courage" reads, pointedly, Sen. John F. Kennedy -- the latest Massachusetts lawmaker to win the Democratic nomination cannot escape the fact that most of his political life has been spent in the Senate chamber and in its committee rooms.
The Senate is a place apart -- from the rest of Washington, from the world, from the 21st century. It is the only refuge of splendid isolation remaining in American politics. It is governed by rules written in the 18th century, its language is rooted in another time, and its activities move at a pace out of sync with our impatient era. It has its own folkways, its own taboos, its own perspectives.
The chronicle of the chamber's history that is most revered by its members was written by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia; you can pick up that weighty volume, bound in expensive cloth, and you will look in vain for any word of respect for the presidency, which is regarded as merely another, and not particularly relevant, branch of the government. It is notable that "Profiles in Courage" singles out only one senator who later became president, John Quincy Adams, whose immensely unhappy presidential term is remembered mostly for not being followed by a second term. And when the Dirksen Congressional Research Center set out a decade ago to determine the outstanding senators of the 20th century, only one of the nine was a president; he was Lyndon B. Johnson, who ascended to the White House only because Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Deal-making part of Senate
Johnson was a superb senator, perhaps the most dominating Senate figure of the last century, and while his skills there helped him win passage of many of his Great Society priorities, the Senate style he grafted onto the Oval Office -- the willingness, in turn, to cajole and to seduce, the eagerness to make a deal -- undermined his authority as president and weakened his hold on the American people and, ultimately, on the presidency itself.
Similarly, the Dole style, so effective in the indoor setting of the Capitol, was ineffective in the largely outdoor setting of presidential politics, where mastery of the inside detail (and mastery of the art of making a deal, where both Johnson and Dole excelled) diminishes rather than enhances a candidate's appeal.
"Dole was an excellent senator but probably shouldn't have run for president," said Burdett Loomis, a Kansas University political scientist. "He's the poster child for this problem. The best senators seek complexity and are rewarded for promoting groups to work in harmony. In fact, the best senators work together rather than differentiate themselves, which is what successful presidential candidates have to do."
Kennedy's book underlines another of the obstacles to easy movement between the Senate and the White House. "All of us in the Senate meet endless examples of ... conflicting pressures, which only reflect the inconsistencies inevitable in our complex economy," the senator wrote in 1956. "If we tell our constituents frankly that we can do nothing, they feel we are unsympathetic or inadequate. If we try and fail -- usually meeting a counteraction from other Senators representing other interests -- they say we are like all the rest of the politicians." Tough predicament.
Tougher, still, for Kerry, who is running in an unusually difficult election, where the percentage of voters who tell pollsters they are undecided (4 percent, according a New York Times/CBS News Poll) is far less than that in the elections of 2000 (13 percent) and 1992 (12 percent).
"The Senate has seldom been the presidential incubator or nursery it ought to be given the ambition, visibility, resources, and records of both current and former members of the institution," Harvard professor Barry C. Burden wrote in a scholarly article for the journal Political Science Quarterly.
Senate record de-emphasized
Which is why, as Labor Day approaches, Kerry is trying to overcome the burden of his own political resume.
His speechwriters are laboring to purge the senatorial idiom from his lexicon, his ad executives are hardly mentioning his Senate experience, and his handlers are trying to put him in settings that -- thanks to the vigorous examples of Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the current President Bush -- are more presidential than senatorial. One of the distinctive truths of our age of informality is that in our popular imagination, senators wear togas and deliver pronouncements, while presidents wear golf shirts and clear the brush. And, as Kerry's emerging campaign style suggests, presidential candidates must excel in the call for action. They can leave the quorum calls for others.
David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.