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Archive for Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sons try to respond to ‘80 political losses

August 20, 2006

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The sons are rising, or at least are trying to. Three of them are trying to redeem their fathers for their losses in the 1980 election - and using the political brands their fathers created to win high office in a world completely transformed in the past quarter-century.

Three of the Democratic victims of the 1980 Republican earthquake have sons running hard now - Jimmy Carter (Jack Carter is a candidate for Senate in Nevada), Sen. Birch E. Bayh (Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana is a likely Democratic presidential candidate) and Sen. John C. Culver of Iowa (Chet Culver is running for governor).

It's an interesting phenomenon, reminiscent of the time when three sons - the sons of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Sen. Walter F. Mondale and Gov. Orville Freeman - all ran for governor of the same state (Minnesota) at the same time (1998). But that wasn't the most unusual part of that gubernatorial race. The most enduring aspect was who won. That would be Jesse Ventura, the professional wrestler.

Losers were the key

Likewise, the most significant aspect of the 1980 election may not be who lost, though the list is a veritable hall of Democratic fame. The losers, besides Mr. Carter, who relinquished the presidency, and Messrs. Bayh and Culver, who involuntarily ended long careers as Senate liberals, also included Herman Talmadge of Georgia, Frank Church of Idaho, George S. McGovern of South Dakota, Warren G. Magnuson of Washington and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. You could build a party around that roster, and for a generation the Democrats did. (Another important loser in 1980: Sen. Jacob K. Javits, Republican of New York, defeated in a primary.)

But - and we can see this clearer in 2006 than we could in 1980 - the most important part of that election was who won. Many of the winners turned out to be ephemeral characters, of course, remarkable mainly for how peripheral and idiosyncratic they were. No list of Senate greats would include Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, Paula Hawkins of Florida, Mack Mattingly of Georgia, Steven D. Symms of Idaho, Alfonse D'Amato of New York or John P. East of North Carolina. Not one of them is in politics today, nor remembered for much of anything.

But let's take the three men who defeated President Carter, Sen. Bayh and Sen. Culver. All three of the victors were ridiculed as intellectual pygmies by the smart writers in the newspapers (those were the days) and by the smart talkers on the major television networks (CNN was founded in 1980, and the suzerainty of cable news chat was still a decade or more away). Two of them ended up in the history books, and the third still is in the Senate, liked, respected and heeded by lawmakers of both parties and by the press.

Reagan legacy

President Carter was defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, whose two terms in the presidency far eclipsed the one term the incumbent served. Reagan is remembered today as the founder of modern electoral conservatism, and a measure of his impact is that his signature idea, that the government can't and shouldn't do everything, is hardly contested today. (One of his successors, a Democrat, Bill Clinton, even proclaimed the end of big government.) Though reviled in his time as an unfeeling plutocrat, much of the anger against Reagan now has dissipated, and he is regarded, even by Democrats, as one of the major figures of the 20th century.

Birch Bayh was defeated by Rep. Dan Quayle, who in the Senate built a respectable record on defense matters and was one of the earliest and most vocal rebels against the go-along, get-along rhythms and folkways of the chamber. He was chosen as George H.W. Bush's running mate in 1988 and is remembered for his poor spelling and weak performance in his debate against Lloyd Bentsen. He may be linked forever with the potato(e), but if you open your reference books (and here, I know, I date myself), you will see him listed, now and forevermore, as one of the vice presidents of the United States. Mariah Carey has a phrase for this: They can't take that away.

Now to John Culver, whose greatest fame may have come as a Harvard football star (he and Dick Clasby, mainstays of the 1953 Crimson team, were both NFL draft picks). Mr. Culver was defeated by Charles E. Grassley, whose intellectual skills were so disparaged that he, along with his colleague, GOP Sen. Roger Jepsen, were the subject of the best but cruelest political riddle of the time. (Q: Which state has a senator even dumber than Roger Jepsen? A: Iowa.)

One victor still standing

But Mr. Grassley still is cooking away in the Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill. He's in his fifth term in the Senate and as unpredictable a member of the body as there is, at one moment crusading against pork, at the other giving aid and comfort to whistleblowers, and then, a moment later, accusing the federal regulatory agencies of being patsies for big companies. Often he is the bane of the Bush administration (he didn't for one minute buy the plan to provide private investment accounts for Social Security) and of the Pentagon (he was the guy who unearthed the $700 toilets). Mr. Culver, charming and, if you can say this about an Iowa senator, urbane, was a favorite with Washington hostesses, but Mr. Grassley, a corn and soybean farmer, may be more nearly an indispensable figure.

All this amounts to an inconvenient truth - or at least that's how another son who sought to redeem his father's loss would put it. That would be Al Gore, whose father lost a bruising Senate race in 1970.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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