The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis. By Ira Shapiro. (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2012. Pp. xxi, 475. $34.99.)
The Great Senate of the title lasted from 1963 until 1980, drawing its greatness from the willingness of its members to find workable solutions to the nation's problems through bipartisan compromise, even at the expense of individual political ambitions. In this fascinating insider's account, Ira Shapiro provides revealing vignettes of senators attempting to balance personal, partisan, state, and national interests on a wide range of issues. Comparison to today's dysfunctional institution is obvious; the "last" in Shapiro's title is deliberately ambiguous, referring possibly to the final, or perhaps simply to the most recent, example of greatness.
Shapiro's Great Senate provides a stark contrast to the Senate of the 1950s run by a masterful and domineering Lyndon Johnson. Following Johnson as majority leader, Mike Mansfield oversaw the development of a more democratic Senate, where willing assumption of responsibility overshadowed intimidation and coercion. Shapiro's narrative makes frequent reference to events from the Mansfield years, but his focus falls on the last years of the Great Senate, starting in 1977 as senators Robert Byrd and Howard Baker assumed the majority and minority leadership and "outsider" Jimmy Carter became president. A series of chapters for each of the four years chronicle major issues before the Senate.
A good example of Shapiro's method is his story of President Carter's request that the Senate approve the sale of F-15 military aircraft to Saudi Arabia; this novel move for the US was hotly opposed by most supporters of Israel. After efficiently explaining the newly fluid state of Middle East politics in early 1977, Shapiro goes into painstaking detail on the negotiations and considerations of Senators Jacob Javits, Abraham Ribicoff, Frank Church, and the rookie Paul Sarbanes, who became the key players on this issue. …