When a newly elected member arrives in the Senate, he or she gets a number corresponding to that person’s place in the line of all senators who have served since the body was created. As of this writing, 1,931 senators have served. Robert Morris and William Maclay of Pennsylvania—who grew to detest each other—got numbers one and two because their state was the first to elect its senators. The first group of twelve senators arrived at the same time, April 6, 1789. When I joined the Senate in 1987, I was both amazed and delighted at the number I was given: 1776, the year the American colonies declared independence from Britain.
From the moment a new senator first steps onto the Senate floor, most are powerfully aware that we are links in an extraordinary chain of history going back to the Founders, the heirs and guardians of a miracle. And that miracle is the ideal of the United States, which we embrace, and whose great freedoms we swear to protect.
Eight years after I arrived, the senators of my party elected me their Leader, and one of my strongest supporters and most loyal and dedicated friends, Dick Reiners, invited me to dinner back home in South Dakota. Dick, then in his eighties, was a farmer. Over meat and potatoes at Dick’s farmhouse in Worthing, I asked him for advice. He paused and looked at me and said, “There are two things that I would hope for you. One is that you never forget where you came from. Come home. Remember us.” Then he pointed to some photos on the wall that I recognized readily, of his grandchildren. He said, “You’ve held each one of those grandkids, as have I. Give them hope. Every day you walk onto the floor, give them hope.”
We hugged, and I left. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I got a call that Dick had passed away.
I’ve never gotten better advice in all the years before or since, and it has stayed with me. From across America, since our country was founded, voters have chosen neighbors to represent them in the Senate, and sent them to Washington with great goals. A senator’s challenge is to focus on those goals and not lose sight of them amid the daily bustle and battles. That can be particularly challenging in today’s tough times.
One touchstone, in particular, helped me remember my purpose: the Senate Leader’s desk, at the front of the chamber. The desks, made in 1819, each have an ink well and a snuff box. You pull open the drawer, and you see the names of all the Leaders carved in it, and other senators, all those who used the desk before you.
As they sit at those desks, senators take on the challenge to safeguard our freedom, the same challenge that American soldiers have met for more than two centuries, and for which more than a million men and women have given their lives in more than thirty wars.
I represented South Dakota, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate—the two bodies that comprise the U.S. Congress—and served my last ten years as Senate Democratic Leader, including stints as Minority Leader and Majority Leader, depending on which party held more seats. For twenty-six years, the people of South Dakota—and colleagues from across the country—allowed me to live my passion.
I was raised Catholic, and my Catholicism was a huge part of my life when I was young. For many, from ordained clergy to the millions who volunteer through faith-affiliated groups and activities, the church is a calling, a way of serving something beyond themselves, a way of helping others. I rode my bike to mass every morning before school, even in numbing South Dakota winters. For me, the one action that evokes many of the same sensations as walking into a church is stepping onto the Senate floor. The majesty, the richness, the history, and sometimes the hush of the Senate chamber are akin to that of a sacred place. It was my secular temple.
It’s a rare privilege to serve in the U.S. Senate. It’s not easy to get there, or to stay there. Before you can try to realize your goals and visions, though, you have to convince your neighbors that you can best represent their views and interests in Washington. Alben Barkley, a Senate Majority Leader and later vice president, was asked what makes a great senator. “To be a great senator,” Barkley replied, “first you have to get elected.”
But in America, you don’t have to be rich or connected or go to “the right schools” to win a Senate seat, or even become Majority Leader. You can come from a farm family in a small Midwestern state, and be the first in that family to graduate from college, like me. You just need to be thirty years old by the time you take office, a U.S. citizen for nine years, live in the state in which you run, and make the best case to your neighbors why they should send you to Washington.
Once you’re in, the Senate itself—the Capitol, the chamber, your colleagues, the desks, the statues, the art, the history—should channel what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” and buttress you. Mike Mansfield, the great and longest-serving Senate Majority Leader, said, “What moved Senators yesterday still moves Senators today. We have the individual and collective strength of our predecessors…”
Copyright © 2013 by Tom Daschle and Charles Robbins