March 12, 1959
The "Famous Five"
Just after noontime on March 12, 1959, a festive crowd jammed the Capitol's Senate Reception Room to induct five former members into a senatorial "hall of fame." Four years earlier, the Senate had formed a special committee to identify outstanding former members, no longer living, whose likenesses would be placed in five vacant portrait spaces in the Reception Room.
Leading the five-member committee was a 38-year-old freshman who had recently written a book about courageous senators. That book, published in January 1956 under the title Profiles In Courage, later earned Senator John F. Kennedy the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in biography. The committee also included Democrats Richard Russell (GA) and Mike Mansfield (MT), and Republicans Styles Bridges (NH) and John Bricker (OH).
The Kennedy Committee struggled to define senatorial greatness. Should they apply a test of "legislative accomplishment"? Perhaps, in addition to positive achievement there should be recognition of, as they put it, "courageous negation." What about those senators who consistently failed to secure major legislation, but in failing, opened the road to success for a later generation?
Personal integrity? That might exclude the chronically indebted Daniel Webster. National leadership? That would knock out great regional leaders like John C. Calhoun. The unanimous respect of one's colleagues? That would doom the antislavery leader Charles Sumner. The Kennedy committee's established criteria nicely evaded these questions. It agreed to judge candidates "for acts of statesmanship transcending party and State lines" and to define "statesmanship" to include "leadership in national thought and constitutional interpretation as well as legislation." The committee further agreed that it would not recommend a candidate unless all its members agreed to that choice.
An advisory committee of 160 scholars offered 65 candidates. Sixty-five names for five spaces! Senator Kennedy quipped that sports writers choosing entrants to the Baseball Hall of Fame had it easy by comparison. As its top choice, the scholars' committee named Nebraska's Progressive Republican George Norris, a senator from 1913 to 1943. Senate panel member Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris from the late 1930s, harbored many ill feelings from that association and consequently, along with Nebraska’s two incumbent senators, blocked his further consideration.
On May 1, 1957, the Kennedy Committee reported to the Senate its choices: Henry Clay (KY), John C. Calhoun (SC), Daniel Webster (MA), Robert Taft (OH), and Robert La Follette, Sr. (WI). In 2004, the Senate added Arthur Vandenberg (MI) and Robert Wagner (NY) to this distinguished company.
Kennedy, John F. "Search for the Five Greatest Senators." The New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1957.
U.S. Senate. Senate Reception Room. S. Rpt. 85-279.