Select Page



by William H. Benson

June 28, 2012

     Bob Kerrey wants to return to the Senate. He left in 2001 after completing two terms there, and now after ten years of living in Greenwich Village near Washington Square Park, he wants to return to Nebraska and run for the Senate. Democratic leaders, such as Harry Reid, the majority leader, have  pleaeded with him to come back, but, Kerry said, “just about everybody else who lives in Washington told me not to do it. They just said the place has become too toxic and you can’t get things done.”

     “Too toxic,” they told him. The Republicans paint the Democrats as free-spending and irresponsible liberals, and the Democrats accuse the reactionary Tea Partiers of daring to close down the federal government. The bitter partisanship is like a whirling cyclone pulling some in and ejecting others out. No one governs. “You can’t get things done,” he was told.

     As bad as it is, it could be worse. This time the political polarization is not necessarily as sectional as it was over 150 years ago, and we have not witnessed a breakdown in the rule of law on Congress’ floors. That happened once. On May 22, 1856, a South Carolina Representative named Preston Brooks walked into the Senate chamber, stepped towards the Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner who was writing at his desk, read a statement, lifted a cane, and then beat Sumner about the head a dozen times.

     Sumner lived through the bloody ordeal but was absent from the Senate for the next two years, suffering from headaches and memory loss, but his Senate chair was kept vacant until his return.

     What had provoked the assault was Sumner’s two-day speech on May 19-20, in which the Massachusetts Senator had denounced in the most vile language the advancement of slavery into Kansas and also ridiculed the South Carolina Senator Andrew P. Butler, who happened to be Preston Brooks’ uncle. People in the Southern states lived by an honor code, and to resolve issues people resorted to dueling or assaults. Not extracting revenge for a slight was considered cowardly.

     Most Congressmen suspected that if compromise failed between the slave South and the free North, then the Union would be lost, divided, and that a bloody Civil War would follow. Sadly, tragically, unfortunately, it all happened, and no one stopped it. No one person could stop it.

     The American people are proud of their country, but so too are they proud of their state, that state  where they live now or where they were born and grew up in. There is an unwritten rule in every one of the fifty states. “Do not belittle another person’s state.” A person cheers for his or her college football or basketball team, and so cheers for his or her state. U. S. citizens defend the honor of their own state.

     The news magazine, The Week, published two short articles next to each other on May 25. On top was an article on Massachusetts, saying that it was “The healthiest state in the nation,” and immediately below it was another article on Mississippi, claiming that it was “Where race remains relevant.”

     The first article proclaimed how rosy and wonderful things were in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney’s state. “Its schools have produced the best scores on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math tests, with the lowest gap between poor and wealthier kids; on average, our students even outperform those from Singapore and Japan. Our per capita income is the second highest in the nation.”

     Eli Hager, an eighth-grade teacher in the rural Mississippi Delta, wrote the second article, detailing how awful things are there. “The schools here are as ‘fundamentally separate and unequal’ as they were in the 1950s. White students are sent to prestigious private academies and have every opportunity to succeed, while the state’s failing public schools are 95 percent black, churning out students who are ‘functionally illiterate’ and destined for poverty or jail.” His words are harsh, even biting.

     Hager states that “folk music historians note that the word ‘Kumbaya’ mispronounces a blues lyric that urged listeners unaware of injustice to ‘come by here’ and see it.” It is there, if you look for it.

     How can it be that a New England state has so much, and yet a Southern state has so little? Again, it is the age-old discrepancy between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots, between urban and rural, between advantaged and disadvantaged. Sadly, tragically, and unfortunately, it is so, and one person can do so little to improve the differences.

     Bob Kerrey wants to leave New York, live in Nebraska but work in Washington, in the Senate, and make a difference. A reporter asked him what the Democratic leaders will think of him “slashing trillions of dollars from entitlement programs” or of banning party caucuses. “My guess is,” answered Kerry, “is that they’ll think my proposals are wrong. So we have an argument, that’s all. Nobody’s going to die. Nobody’s going to haul me across the river and shoot me, like Burr did Hamilton.”


     Hopefully, no one will step up to him in the Senate chamber and break a cane over his head, either. That is, if he wins the election. I wish him well.