Why U.S. Senators Often Lack Charisma 



President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s main goals in office were to contain the spread of communism, reduce federal deficits and gradually promote integration. In 1962, a year or so into his retirement, a reporter asked the former president, “What is different now that you are out of office?” Eisenhower replied: “Well, a lot more people are beating me at golf.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R – KY) was born in Sheffield, Alabama, and lived six years in Athens, Alabama. He is truly a success story to reach such political heights. But he is now much less powerful as a minority leader than he was as a majority leader. Perhaps more people are beating him in competitions, as they did in golfing against Eisenhower, since he, McConnell, fell in the Senate firmament.

The reverse is true of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D – NY), who was advanced to the majority when former President Trump’s actions in the 2020 Georgia Senate race were counter-productive. The majority leader has more power over the minority party’s leader; in the assignment of senators to committees, setting voting schedules, holding a full-house media briefing most days and other tasks. (Note: Readers may think a “minority leader” represents racial or ethnic minority voters. No, it means he leads the party that has the fewest senators.) 

 I noticed something interesting while studying present and former U.S. Senate majority and minority leaders. That is, holders of those positions are usually less colorful and exciting than the other senators. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D – MA) was never a majority leader or deputy leader, minority leader or deputy leader. That is because he could not get enough Senate Democrats to vote for him — because he was more liberal than they were.

After Chappaquiddick, where a young female staffer drowned in his car, Kennedy was unlikely to be the “face” of his party. The reverse is former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R – AL). I doubt he wanted to be in the Senate leadership, but even if he did, Sessions would probably get voted down. Why? Because he was to the right of even his GOP friends in the Senate.

Don’t cry for the late Massachusetts senator or the Yellowhammer State’s senator of 20 years. Kennedy died in 2009, but he is remembered as “The Lion of the Senate” as he always fought hard for his liberal fans. And Sessions spent more than a year as a Presidential Cabinet member — he was attorney general in the first part of the Trump administration.

“He holds his feelings, thoughts and emotions in a lockbox closed so tightly that whenever one of them seeps out, bystanders are struck silent,” wrote John Boehner, speaker of the house (2011-2015) in his memoir. Boehner was referring to a fellow Republican, McConnell.

My thesis on leaders is that McConnell and Sen. Harry Reid (D –  NV) are microcosms not known for their charm or humor. Both did sustain support over many years as they kept their senators pleased with most of their decisions. When McConnell held SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat open in 2016 instead of allowing a Democratic nominee to advance, it wasn’t unpopular but just the opposite — largely approved — by GOP senators.

As Senate majority leader (2007-2015), Reid came across as soft-spoken yet behind the scenes he was a battler and strong partisan. Now deceased, he was not a good manipulator of TV, but he accomplished much of what his Democratic caucus wanted. The ultimate Senate leader was Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D – TX), serving during most of the 1950s.

Many historians consider Johnson the most effective Senate majority leader in history, developing leadership skills that proved valuable later as president. One biographer claimed he was “the greatest intelligence gatherer Washington has ever known.” He knew where a senator stood on issues, his philosophy and prejudices, an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, etc.

For McConnell, there may be mixed blessings with the Midterm elections. The Democrats could retain their majority something not anticipated until the last four months. That would delight Schumer, getting more time as minority leader after only two years on the precipice. Amazingly, McConnell’s Republicans could get the majority, but drop McConnell in favor of a more conservative, more Trump-supporting and younger member of the GOP.

Schumer is 71 years old and entering his 25th year in the Senate. He could hang on if forced into the minority; he could return to the majority now or in a few years. Yet McConnell is 80 and already has 37 years as a senator. Maybe when he does leave the Senate, the Kentuckian will be asked the same question ex-President Eisenhower was. “What is different now that you are out of office?” Mitch may reply, “Well, many more people are beating me at polo.” 

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a masters in education from AUM and a masters in history from Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education, and books. gm.markley@charter.net


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