November 28, 2012

Recovered history: When filibusters were real

Sam Smith - I was fortunate enough to have covered a number of real filibusters. Once I reported that "This afternoon it was JW Fulbright who said the issue of discrimination was non-existent -- raised every four years for political reasons." Fulbright at the time was participating in a southern filibuster that had already been going 69 hours, far longer than any previous effort.

Among those also taking part were Sam Ervin and the rambunctious, hard-drinking Russell Long who managed to hold the Senate floor for eleven hours. This, however, was no record. Senator Wayne Morse had once gone over 18 hours and two years earlier, Strom Thurmond had held the floor for more than a day.

Thurmond reportedly described to Rep. Wayne Hayes in some detail how he managed this feat without having to relieve himself, noting that he had taken saunas, avoided liquids and so forth. Hayes listened thoughtfully and then said, "Strom, I can understand how you went that long without pissing, but what I can't figure out is how someone so full of shit as you could have done it."

One filibuster would drift into another and the hours turned into days. Cots filled the one time Senate chamber. A group of reporters gathered around the minority leader, Everett Dirksen, in the middle of a night and one asked, "How are you doing?" The Wizard of Ooze told us he was doing all right "but at some point I suppose I shall have to lie down and let Morpheus embrace me . . . After two weeks the flesh rides herd on the spirit."

That was a real filibuster. Today, Dirksen would have just called Harry Reid and said, "Chalk me up for a filibuster."

Charles McDowell, Progressive Review, 1986 -Sen. Albert Gore, a Democrat from Tennessee, was amused. He said television had shown us the Titanic on the bottom of the sea and Halley's comet deep in space, and now it actually was going to show us the United States Senate .

Sen. Russell Long, a Democrat of Louisiana, was horrified. He said television in the Senate meant that statesmanship would yield to showmanship. He added that statesmanship already was pretty scarce, come to think of it .

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, another Democrat from Louisiana, also was pessimistic. He said a filibuster in the Senate was "a messy, untidy spectacle to watch," and he was afraid the citizens would not understand that the spectacle could be important to their freedoms .

Sen. John Stennis, a Democrat from Mississippi, was resigned to the new era. He said, "Let 'em see it all, the way we're carrying on here." The senators voted, 67 to 21, to televise their sessions from gavel to gavel on a trial basis from June 1 to July 15. C-SPAN, the cable network that has been televising the House of Representatives since 1979, will carry the Senate on a second channel. So, roughly a third of a century after television connected people and politics directly, Congress joins the hookup .

As some of the Southerners have been saying, television will make filibustering difficult. Viewers at home are likely to become impatient and then indignant rather fast when the droning and stalling and arcane parliamentary maneuvering go on for hours, days and weeks at a time with only a handful of senators in sight .

Writing about this prospect last year, I suggested some rules that the Senate might adopt to protect its dignified image of itself. ... One rule was: If a senator is caught asleep during any broadcast, the cameraman will answer to the Rules Committee .

Well, now they are making the real rules to prepare for the advent of television. The Washington Post began its summary of them this way: "The rules as approved preclude camera-panning of the chamber to show empty seats or drowning senators ..."

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