“The Senate Type”
William S. White, 1956
In 1956, when Pennsylvania Democrat Joseph S. Clark sought out Hubert H. Humphrey, whom he admired greatly, and asked how to become an effective senator, Senator Humphrey’s advice boiled down to this: “Take it easy your first months in the Senate. Cooperate with the Majority Leader. Get a copy of William S. White’s Citadel, which celebrates Senate folkways and the Senators who adapt to them. Follow White’s advice.”
William S. White came to Washington from Texas as an Associated Press reporter in 1933, when he was assigned to cover the Texas delegation on Capitol Hill. That included such powerful movers and shakers as Vice President John Nance Garner, future House Speaker Sam Rayburn, future Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Tom Connally, and an ambitious young House staffer named Lyndon B. Johnson. White reported on events throughout the government during his long career as a Washington correspondent, but the halls of Congress remained his favorite haunts because they were less restrictive and “pleasantly disordered.” If one senator or representative would not tell him what he needed to know, another would. The Second World War took White away from Washington as a war correspondent, but after the war the New York Times hired him as a political reporter and assigned him to “the Capitol,” which he translated as the Senate.
He walked the halls of the Senate, chatted with the senators, and kept an eye on the day-to-day activities of the institution. Senator Robert Taft particularly captured his attention. While White considered himself a liberal internationalist Democrat, he admired the conservative, isolationist Republican who so often dissented from the prevailing political consensus. Regardless of their disagreements over policy, White found Taft a man of principle who was completely incapable of hypocrisy. When Taft’s tenure as majority leader was suddenly cut short by his death, White wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography, The Taft Story, published in 1955. He then turned his attention to the entire U.S. Senate, publishing Citadel in 1956.
White observed that during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration the leading senators “were largely running the country.” The Republican president seemed to have struck an accord with the Democratic leaders in the Congressprincipally House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnsonnot to attempt to roll back the domestic reforms of the New Deal and the Fair Deal if they supported him in foreign policy matters, where Eisenhower was under fire from his own party. White believed that this arrangement elevated the Senate to the highest plateau in its history, and it served as the chief focus of his journalistic attention.
In November 1954, as the Senate prepared to censure the unruly Joseph R. McCarthy, White published a lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine on “The ‘Club’ that is the U.S. Senate.” He described how McCarthy’s flaunting of Senate customs and traditions as a senator and committee chairman had deeply offended “the Senate types,” whom he described as being “long on love of the Senate and its traditions.” Their reverence for the institution marked the antithesis of McCarthy’s freewheeling, ends-justify-the-means form of politics. The article marked White’s first effort to define a “Senate type.”
Over the next year, White expanded this concept into his book on the Senate. It was a labor of love for White. He acknowledged that the institution had its share of big egos and headline hunters, but observed that they operated with “a certain grace and a good healthy dash of self-humor.” More important, he believed, was the Senate’s overriding sense of national responsibility. “It was, in short, a forum largely of big men.” The members of what White called the Senate’s “inner club” imposed limitations on political demagoguery, placed a high value on manners, and operated on a bipartisan basis of compromise and consensus. To some observers all this respect and affection for the Senate by senators seemed “fusty,” but White insisted that it was the very fustiness that appealed to him. His efforts to explain, justify, and eulogize the “Senate type” provided the core of his popular book.
. . . The Senate type is, speaking broadly, a man for whom the Institution is a career in itself, a life in itself and an end in itself. This Senate type is not always free of Presidential ambition. . . . But the important fact is that when the Senate type thinks of the Presidency he thinks of it as only another and not as really a higher ambition. . . .
The Senate type makes the Institution his home in an almost literal sense, and certainly in a deeply emotional sense. His head swims with its history, its lore and the accounts of past personnel and deeds and purposes. To him, precedent has an almost mystical meaning and where the common run of members will reflect twice at least before creating a precedent, the Senate type will reflect so long and so often that nine times out of ten he will have nothing to do with a project at all. . . .
This Senate type knows, with the surest touch in the world, precisely how to treat his colleagues, Outer Club as well as Inner Club. He is nearly always a truly compassionate man, very slow to condemn his brothers. And not even the imminent approach of a great war can disturb him more than the approach of what he may regard as adequate evidence that the Senate may in one crisis or another be losing not the affection of the country (for which he has no great care) but the respect of the country.1
During the 1950s, White noticed that most of the Senate’s real work occurred in “places even more remote than committee rooms.” Deals were being cut in the cloakrooms and hideaway offices in the Capitol, where White could not enter, but about which he could learn from his “network of amiable informers.” His chief informer, Lyndon Johnson, served as Senate majority leader from 1955 to 1961. Harboring presidential ambitions and keen on favorable publicity from the nation’s leading newspaper, Johnson cultivated the friendship of the New York Times correspondent and took pains to explain to him how the Senate worked. In many ways it was Johnson who inspired and shaped White’s writing about the “inner club,” particularly his efforts to explain why he had waited to move against the reckless Joe McCarthy until after the Wisconsin senator had attacked some of the more respected members of the Senate, as he inevitably would do. White absorbed these views and reflected them, adding a highly complimentary analysis of Johnson’s leadership style into his book. Not surprisingly, Lyndon Johnson made sure that each new senator received a copy of Citadel, to turn green freshmen into “Senate types.”
- Evans, Rowland and Robert Novak. Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power. New York: New American Library, 1966.
- White, William S. Citadel, The Story of the U.S. Senate. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.
- White, William S. The Making of a Journalist. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
1. William S. White, Citadel, The Story of the U.S. Senate (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 84-6.