As the nation commemorates and honors Senator John McCain after his passing on August 25, 2018, giving him the kind of attention and reverence often only given to former Presidents of the United States, this is a good time to reflect on the Republican Party and the US Senate since 1950.
With all of the men and women who have served in the US Senate who were members of the Republican Party, this author believes the following fifteen stand out as giant figures in the history of the upper body.
By date of first service, these US Senators who honored their party and the chamber they served in so well would be as follows:
Margaret Chase Smith of Maine (1897-1995) was the first woman to serve in the Senate for a long time (1949-1973), first running to replace her husband in the House of Representatives, but then serving 24 years in the upper chamber. She stands out as a lady of principle, who defied Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy during the infamous Red Scare, with her “Declaration of Conscience” speech in the Senate chamber in 1950, challenging him openly for his lies and deceptions. She became a true model for future women Senators, and would be seen as a moderate centrist in her views and votes.
Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois (1896-1969) served in the Senate from 1951-1969, and was Senate Minority Leader from 1959-1969, after having earlier served in the US House of Representatives. He is remembered for his talented and dramatic oratory, and for working with President Lyndon B. Johnson on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while retaining his strong conservative viewpoints. The ability of Johnson and Dirksen to cooperate for the betterment of the nation in the 1960s is a model that should be utilized in the present.
Barry Goldwater of Arizona (1909-1998), the epitome of American conservatism after the death of Senator Robert Taft of Ohio in 1953, served in the US Senate from 1953-1965 and again, after his overwhelming defeat for the Presidency in 1964 to Lyndon B. Johnson, from 1969-1987. Despite his strong conservative credentials, in his later years, he came under attack by the right wing due to his libertarian views, which included acceptance of abortion rights and gay rights, and belief in total separation of church and state, which had not come up in the early 1960s when he ran for President. Goldwater also convinced President Richard Nixon of the need to resign in 1974 as a result of the Watergate Scandal.
Clifford Case of New Jersey (1904-1982) was a leader of the Eastern liberal wing of the Republican Party, serving in the Senate from 1955-1979, after having served in the House of Representatives. He was a strong supporter of civil rights and labor rights, as well as civil liberties, and was not afraid to alienate the right wing of his party. He often teemed with his colleague from New York, Jacob Javits.
Jacob Javits of New York (1904-1986) was the premier leader of the Eastern liberal wing of the Republican Party, and the most prominent Jewish Republican ever elected to the Senate. He served in the Senate from 1957-1981, after earlier having been a member of the House of Representatives, and also was New York State Attorney General. He saw himself as the inheritor of the traditions of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and allied himself with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He became, like Clifford Case, a supporter of civil rights, labor rights, and civil liberties, and an active support of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society agenda. He also promoted the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to attempt to reign in Presidents in foreign policy, and also the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which regulated defined benefit private pensions.
Howard Baker of Tennessee (1925-2014) served in the Senate from 1967-1985, including being Senate Majority Leader once, and Senate Minority Leader twice. Baker also served as White House Chief of Staff for President Ronald Reagan in 1987-1988, and as Ambassador to Japan from 2001-2005 for President George W. Bush. He is famous for his utterance during the Watergate hearings in the Senate in 1973: “ What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Baker, a moderate, was able to keep a balance and civility within his caucus, something no longer the situation in 2018. He also was married to two prominent daughters of famous Republicans, his first wife being the daughter of Everett McKinley Dirksen, and after her death, his marriage to Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, the daughter of 1936 Republican Presidential nominee Alf Landon.
Mark Hatfield of Oregon (1922-2011) served in the Senate from 1967-1997, including being Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1981-1987 and again from 1995-1997, after having served eight years as governor of his state. Hatfield became noted for his strong anti war beliefs, co-sponsoring the proposed McGovern-Hatfield Amendment in 1970, to try to end US involvement in the Vietnam War, and had the record of having voted against every Defense Department authorization bill as too costly and wasteful spending. He co-sponsored a nuclear freeze with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and opposed military action in the Gulf War in 1991. A lifelong non-interventionist, Hatfield also had elements of libertarianism in his domestic policy views, while generally considered a moderate liberal in the Senate.
Charles Mathias of Maryland (1922-2010) served in the Senate from 1969-1987, including Chairmanship of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee from 1981-1987, after previous service in the House of Representatives. A strong liberal Republican, he allied with Clifford Case and Jacob Javits, clashing with the conservative wing of his party, and working against Ronald Reagan’s challenge of President Gerald Ford in 1976. His conflicts with conservatives prevented him from being Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman in the 1980s, but he promoted civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, preserving the Chesapeake Bay, and constructing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC..
Robert (Bob) Dole of Kansas (1923- ) served in the Senate from 1969-1996, including being Senate Finance Committee Chairman from 1981-1985, Senate Minority Leader from 1987-1995, and Senate Majority Leader from 1985-1987 and 1995-1996, after earlier service in the House of Representatives. Dole also was Republican National Chairman from 1971-1973, and the Republican Party Vice Presidential nominee with President Gerald Ford in 1976, and the party’s Presidential nominee in 1996, when he lost the election to President Bill Clinton. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2018. Dole promoted food stamp legislation in the 1970s in tandem with Democratic Senator George McGovern, who had been the Democratic Presidential nominee in 1972. Dole also served as chairman of the National World War II Memorial committee, which finally achieved the construction of that memorial in Washington DC in 2004. He was seriously wounded while serving in World War II in Europe, shortly before the end of the war.
Lowell P. Weicker of Connecticut (1931- ) served in the Senate from 1971-1989, after one two year term in the House of Representatives, and also was governor of his state as an Independent from 1991-1995, one of a very few politicians to be elected as a non major party nominee to head a state government in American history. He was a growing liberal voice in a party that was becoming increasingly conservative, and was rated the most liberal Republican in the Senate in 1986 by the liberal group Americans For Democratic Action. Weicker won notice for his service on the Watergate Committee, and was the first Republican Senator to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation. He was also a major critic of the Christian Right influence on the Republican Party, and spoke of the glories of the separation of church and state. He took on health care, and particularly the cause of the disabled, in his years in the Senate. Weicker made lifelong enemies of both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, as he became engaged in controversy after controversy in both domestic and foreign policy. He had no issue with being defined as a “Rockefeller Republican”.
Richard Lugar of Indiana (1932- ) served in the Senate from 1977-2013, and as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman from 1985-1987 and 2003-2007, as well as having earlier been the Mayor of Indianapolis for eight years. He also was Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman from 1995-2001. His main emphasis in the Senate was elimination of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons around the world. Lugar was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and was often referred to as “Richard Nixon’s favorite Mayor” in the early 1970s. His voting record won plaudits from people on both sides of the aisle; a fair-minded conservative, he often worked with Democrats and Democratic Presidents. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.
William Cohen of Maine (1940- ) served in the Senate from 1979-1997 after six years in the House of Representatives. He was also Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee from 1981-1983, and as Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee from 1995-1997. He also was President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense in his second term, 1997-2001. Cohen was on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Richard Nixon in 1973, and Cohen was noted as an early advocate of impeachment. Cohen developed a reputation as a moderate Republican with liberal views on social issues. He served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Government Affairs Committee, and Intelligence Committee. Cohen refused to back Donald Trump in 2016, and endorsed Hillary Clinton, but he had already agreed to cross party lines to work for her husband, so his switch was not surprising.
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (1930-2012) served in the Senate from 1981-2011, and was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman from 2005-2007; Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman from 1997-2001 and 2003-2005; and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman from 1995-1997. He was also District Attorney of Philadelphia from 1966-1974, after having served as a staff member for the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1964, and is given credit for the “single bullet theory,” which worked against the concept of multiple gunmen and a conspiracy. His political career began as a Democrat, but he soon switched to the Republican Party, and remained in that party until 2009, when he went back to the Democratic Party. He was considered an unpredictable moderate, who alienated the growing conservative base of the Republican Party, so this motivated him to go back to his old party on the issue of ObamaCare and the economic recovery law. He had become more alienated from his party as the years passed. Ultimately, he was seen as a principled statesman not beholden to a party line.
John McCain of Arizona (1936-2018) became one of the most politically influential leaders in America in his 31 years as a US Senator from 1987-2018, and had previously served as a Congressman for four years. He served as Chairman of three different committees over his career, including the Indian Affairs Committee, Commerce Committee, and Armed Services Committee. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years, he was seen as a war hero and man of courage, dignity, and principle by a nation which honored him upon his death in August 2018. He twice ran for President, losing the nomination of his party to George W. Bush in 2000, and conceding the election of 2008 to Barack Obama. He was seen as a moderate conservative, who would always speak his mind, whether the President in office was a Democrat or Republican. His major area of expertise was foreign and military policy, but he also crossed the aisle and worked with such Democrats as Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Joe Lieberman. McCain is particularly remembered for his work with Feingold on campaign finance reform, which ultimately failed. He loved his image as a maverick but even so, he came to be seen as a giant figure, a “lion of the Senate.” Even those who disagreed on many issues still had a grudging respect for McCain, and he has left a legacy that will not be forgotten.
Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (1946- ) served in the Senate from 1997-2009, and crossed the party line to work for President Barack Obama as Chair of the Intelligence Oversight Board and the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board from 2009-2013, and then as Secretary of Defense from 2013-2015. A Vietnam War veteran as was John McCain, he received the Purple Heart twice, and returned home to earn his fortune in business in banking and computer voting machines, and then ran for the US Senate. While in the Senate, Hagel was unpredictable, and often voted against a party much more to the Right than he was, although he could be defined as mainstream conservative. Like William Cohen, he was willing to work for a Democratic President. While in the Senate, he served on the Foreign Relations Committee; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; and Select Committee on Intelligence. He became a major critic of the George W. Bush foreign policy in the Iraq War, and his close friendship with John McCain withered. He became controversial, and had a difficult confirmation fight for Secretary of Defense, and was forced out after only two years at the Pentagon. Hagel, like many in this group of 15 Republican Senators, was often seen as a maverick, and a man outside party discipline.
When one analyzes these fifteen “greatest” Republican Senators since 1950, one can see all “wings” of the party represented, as Everett M. Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, Richard Lugar, John McCain and Chuck Hagel would fit into the “conservative” camp; Margaret Chase Smith, Howard Baker, William Cohen, and Arlen Specter would be in the “moderate centrist” group; and Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, Charles Mathias, and Lowell Weicker would be in the “liberal” camp. The most conservative would be Barry Goldwater; the most moderate centrist would be Howard Baker; and the most liberal would be Jacob Javits.
All fifteen of these Senators had a major impact on American history.
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is now available.