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Leading the United States Senate


Former Majority Leader Trent Lott originated the Leader's Lecture Series in 1998 to foster a deeper appreciation of the Senate as an institution: “One of my goals when I assumed the responsibility of majority leader . . . was to make the Senate better understood by the American people. . . .  Its proceedings, so frequently crucial to the nation's fate, are sometimes arcane and very difficult to follow."

Senate leadership posts carry great responsibility, but few specific powers are provided in Senate rules.  The leaders have had to use their individual skills, intelligence, and personalities to lead the Senate, which means they each have had their own leadership style.  

In introducing Senator Howard Baker’s 1998 lecture, Senator Lott described Senator Baker’s leadership style:  "There is nothing in any political science textbook that explains the unique way that he led the Senate, but those who were part of it at the time remember. . . . They remember his cool and his patience, even under personal attack.  They remember how, seemingly nonchalant, he would let a policy battle rage for days on the Senate floor, with each Senator exercising fully their right to debate. And then, when the voices calmed and the tempers died down, there would be an informal gathering in his office. After a while, I am told, the anxious staffers outside would hear laughter, probably the result of an anecdote aptly timed to break the ice and bring about a civil consensus."

Anecdotes abound in this volume, some folksy and humorous, some noble and profound, and others poignant and nostalgic in the face of historic tragedies.

One of the more touching tales came from Senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate's longest-serving majority leader.  His Leader’s Lecture was an address that he had prepared many years before in the final weeks of the 1963 session.  "I had selected a Friday afternoon, when little else would be going on, to discuss ‘The Senate and Its Leadership.’ The date was Friday, November 22, 1963. That day's tragic events put an end to any such speech-making. The following week, as the nation grieved for President Kennedy, I simply inserted my prepared remarks into the Congressional Record. . . .  I have waited 35 years to give this speech, never expecting to do so. I wish to quote from that address to present views that I believe are as relevant today as they were more than a third of a century ago."

On a lighter note, Senator Howard Baker offered 13 of his own rules–his Baker’s Dozen–for Senate leadership.  One of his rules: Count carefully and often. "The essential training of a Senate majority leader perhaps ends in the third grade, when he learns to count reliably. But 51 today may be 49 tomorrow, so keep on counting."

The lecture series has been held in the Old Senate Chamber, which was elegantly restored in 1976.  The chamber is an appropriate arena in which to honor the history and the traditions of the Senate, as Senator Lott explained: "In this room, Webster thundered and Clay maneuvered, while the fading Calhoun looked darkly into his country's future. . . . We are still in their debt, for we still can learn from them. We can learn, from their example, to identify and to appreciate those among us who are worthy to stand as their successors."

The Senate has been the stage for some of the most important and dramatic scenes of our history; the men and women who have served have been responsible for much of the nation's development.  Not only has groundbreaking legislation come from the Senate, but it has also been the incubator of some of the greatest leaders of our country.  Leading the United States Senate presents the words and thoughts of some of our greatest minds, and leaves us with ideas to reflect upon.  From Senator Robert C. Byrd: "Serving the public in a leadership role demands honesty, hard work, sacrifice, and dedication from those who dare to ask the people for such an awesome trust.”

Perhaps Vice President Walter Mondale summed it up most succinctly:  "When America was first imagined, John Winthrop said it should be ‘a city upon a hill.’ He didn't mean Capitol Hill. But he might have. The city on this hill is in your hands. May you have the wisdom and the power to protect it always. My years in private life have really convinced me more than ever that we really need you.”