There should be a platinum law for every parliamentarian who wishes to make an indelible mark for the better in public office. It is made up of three interlocking strands: never forget who elected you; never ignore their interests; and continue to be shaped by their values. Two superb examples come to mind.
Last month should be remembered not only for the scourge of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 but for the extraordinary loss to Western parliamentary culture registered in the deaths of two remarkable US senators: Bob Dole and Harry Reid. Both left an enduring impact not only on the workings of the most powerful legislative body in the world, the US Senate, but on democratic culture everywhere.
Republican Dole ran unsuccessfully for executive office more than once. Most significantly, he was president Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 when the Republican ticket was defeated by the Democratic pairing of Georgia governor Jimmy Carter and senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota. The vice-presidential debate that year was something to savour, but more of that later.
Twenty years on, after tilting in Republican presidential primaries, Dole had his chance. But 1996 was not a year in which Americans contemplated change and Bill Clinton was returned to the White House easily. It was a time of comparative prosperity and widespread if not universal peace. Again, Dole’s campaign let him down badly.
But it was as senator for Kansas and as majority leader for his party that Dole established his reputation as a master politician.
It was not a promising beginning for the senator. He was born on July 22, 1923, in hardscrabble Russell, Kansas, which repeatedly would become vulnerable to severe climatic changes: part of the Dust Bowl depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
At one time the Dole family was in such dire financial straits that they moved into the basement of the family home, renting the space above to oil workers to survive.
There is no real Australian equivalent word for hardscrabble, implying poverty, struggle and resilience. People in such circumstances are obliged to fight for anything to which they aspire.
Searchlight, Nevada could be a definition of hardscrabble. In a home that lacked running water, Harry Reid was born on December 2, 1939, into a family that was very much at the margins. With an alcoholic father but a determined mother obliged to take in laundry from the gambling joints and brothels in the mining outpost, the young Reid lacked any advantages in life. But he made the most of it, even learning to swim in a pool in a neighbouring brothel.
Reid, like Dole, was also a fighter. Dole was a war hero, having suffered terrible injuries that disfigured him for life in the final weeks of the Italian campaign in April 1945. He was left for dead on the battlefield. Too young for war, Reid was a boxer and what he learned in the ring served him well in politics.
As with his compatriot from Kansas, Reid found his niche in the US Senate, where as majority leader from 2007 to 2015 he was arguably the most influential Democrat since Texan senator Lyndon B. Johnson, also incidentally born without anything approaching a silver spoon and reared in the Texas Hill Country.
In his younger days Reid served as a Capitol Hill policeman while studying law at George Washington University by night. His ambition was always to be a legislator and the formidable democratic machine in Nevada provided the ladder.
His close friend and mentor, Nevada governor Mike O’Callaghan, appointed Reid to the influential but thankless role of chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. No one needs to observe that gaming is the life blood of Nevada and at the time mob interests remained prominent.
Reid displayed the kind of mental toughness that was readily apparent in his Senate years. But at one stage he lost it. Infuriated by an attempt to bribe him, Reid physically attacked the miscreant and would have throttled him had not the FBI, monitoring the conversation by way of a sting operation, intervened to save the threatened criminal.
Dole also was known to lose it, exemplified in an astonishing outburst during the debate against Mondale in 1976, when he blamed the Democratic Party for America’s wars of the 20th century. Rocked by criticism, he remarked disarmingly that he had gone for the jugular, but unfortunately it was his own.
His presidential campaign 20 years later was little better and at one point he could not say what would be his priorities in the White House.
Both these men are owed a great debt by the American republic and by all those who share the values on which it now rests.
Dole and Reid could be as tough as nails, products of the schools in which they originated. But they were respected on both sides of the aisle in congress and their word could be trusted.
It’s one reason presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden paid tribute to their outstanding service. Indeed, Obama said he would never have been able to reach the presidency or achieve what he did, including Obamacare, without Reid’s skill and commitment. Biden observed that he valued Dole’s counsel and always looked to him for good humour to defuse difficult situations.
Neither man was a saint. Dole was such a fierce defender of Richard Nixon, whom he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, that he became known as Nixon’s hatchet man.
Reid, on the other hand, made a notorious and unsubstantiated allegation against Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney in 2012, that Romney had not paid taxes in a very long time. Confronted with this calumny, Reid shrugged it off by saying it was justified because Romney did not win.
But both senators distinguished themselves in defence of the Social Security Act at different times and for different reasons. Dole was an outspoken advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act and Reid guaranteed the position of gay personnel in the US military.
These examples of dedicated and long-term parliamentary service may be American, but the lessons are there for every Western democracy, including Australia. There is nothing like life experience, especially in hardscrabble origins, to mould and confirm future parliamentary imperatives. It is a matter of authenticity in public life that is important in any democratic system and particularly now when pressures both domestic and external are real and immediate.