The Upper House

A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate

nolead begins By Terence Samuel

Palgrave Macmillan. 255 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Ross K. Baker


On the night of the 2000 election when the outcome of the presidential race was still in doubt, one contest had quickly been decided: former first lady Hillary Clinton's romp over New York Rep. Rick Lazio.

Her victory statement dripping with contempt for the Electoral College, Clinton vowed to go to Washington and abolish that 18th-century anachronism. Ironists, hearing her denunciation, probably chuckled, because she had just been elected to the greatest 18th-century anachronism of them all: the United States Senate.

For an institution so encrusted with fussy customs, burdened by impenetrable rules, and host to the 100 most distended egos in America, the Senate holds a fascination for writers that seems eternal.

From Woodrow Wilson in the 1880s to Robert Caro in the 1980s and innumerable journalists and scholars before and since, observers have attempted to crack the code and really get at the source of wisdom that clarifies everything about the Senate. The best of them spend less time on the Constitutional origins or the baffling ground rules under which the body operates. Instead, they concentrate on the senators themselves, because the Senate, at any given time, is the product of who happens to hold those 100 seats.

Former Inquirer staff writer Terence Samuel, an experienced Washington journalist, follows this precept and gives us a series of delightful snapshots of senators at work and at play, at home and in the nation's capital.

To be sure, any book that focuses on incumbent senators is certain to be time-bound. Twenty years from now, a reader picking up this book at a summer used-book sale may well set to head-scratching about people such as Amy Klobuchar or Bob Corker and wonder why Terence Samuel showcased them - unless, of course, between now and then they rise to the status of Daniel Webster or Ted Kennedy. But if I were writing a book about the Senate, I would certainly emphasize the individuals who occupy those desks at the north end of the Capitol.

Samuel's choice of senators to profile is not random. He focuses on members of the Senate Class of 2006, whose election enabled the Democrats to recapture the majority they had lost in 2002.

And a colorful collection of individuals they are. In addition to the aforementioned Sens. Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Corker (R., Tenn.), there are: Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) whose wildly flailing arms and wispy white hair make him look like Hollywood's idea of a mad inventor; Jim Webb (D., Va.), the tightly wound ex-Marine, ex-novelist, and ex-Republican; and Jon Tester (D., Mont.), with his flattop haircut giving him the appearance of the well-meaning Dad in a 1950s sitcom.

Samuel, although he does not acknowledge the debt, follows the precept of the revered political scientist Richard Fenno for getting a handle on politicians; he hangs around with them and, not surprisingly, is often seduced by their charm, their ambition, and their ability to absorb punishment, to tolerate boredom, and to seem to care deeply about what they do for a living.

The author catches them at the fullest flush of their enthusiasm before it has been eroded by the millstones of the Senate and its institutional penchant for dilatory tactics, false bonhomie, and suffocating logorrhea.

The Democrats among them are eager to introduce amendments to terminate the Iraq war or to legislate some alleviation of this country's vast income inequality. And, sadly, it all comes to naught because Majority Leader Harry Reid does not have the 60 Democrats required to overcome Republican filibusters. This, of course, opens both Reid and his freshman class to harsh attacks from the party's liberal base who, in my experience, have about as much understanding of the U.S. Senate as a visitor from Melanesia.

Reid, perhaps the most misunderstood politician in America, gives Samuel generously of his time, but the author cannot capture Reid's occult qualities.

Rank-and-file Democrats are puzzled and often infuriated by Reid. The party base imagines the leader of the Senate Democrats to be a kind of Cotton Mather who imposes a harsh and astringent discipline on a caucus of benevolent souls who seek only the advancement of humankind but are held back from their benevolent impulses by this starchy Mormon.

In truth, Reid is more like Yosemite Sam, only with a bit more control over his detonations as he attempts to impose some direction on a group that ranges from from Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, a member of the 2006 class and an incandescent liberal, all the way over to Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, the Senate's most conservative Democrat, whose demands for payoffs for his state very nearly sank President Obama's health care bill.

Throw in the always-unpredictable Joe Lieberman and assorted goblins who disturb Reid's sleep, such as Appropriations chairman Dan Inouye and Finance chairman Max Baucus, who often seem more in synch with their ranking Republicans than they do with their leader.

Like Dickens' Uriah Heep, Harry Reid serves that he may rule.

Samuel detours toward the end of his book into the 2008 presidential contest. This is space that would have been better devoted to drilling down more into the U.S. Senate. That reservation aside, this is a neat little book with some very shrewd insights into the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, which, despite its creaking antiquity, is still a vital center of American politics and well worth reading about in books like this one.

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, is a former Senate staffer and author of "House and Senate."