Power Centers

Senate Farewell Speeches Show History's Echo In Chamber

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, walks to the Senate floor, Dec. 7, 2010. i i

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, walks to the Senate floor, Dec. 7, 2010. Harry Hamburg/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Hamburg/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, walks to the Senate floor, Dec. 7, 2010.

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, walks to the Senate floor, Dec. 7, 2010.

Harry Hamburg/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It is the time at the end of a session of Congress when those senators who are leaving  because of retirement or defeat make their farewell speeches.

Morning Edition featured an audio montage of such speeches Monday. These are often emotional moments for senators clearly saddened that they won't be returning to the institution they've devoted sometimes decades of their lives to.

Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican defeated largely because he voted for TARP, the financial bailout, told a story he's told since his loss to a Tea Party movement-backed candidate in the Republican primary earlier this year.

His story is of how his father before him, also a U.S. senator, took a tough vote that wound up threatening the elder Bennett's political career, is noteworthy both because it illustrates how deep the ties of some of these senators are to the institution and how much history echoes through that chamber.

An excerpt from Bennet's farewell speech:

Let me go back to the Civil Rights Act and that debate. Barry Goldwater was the Republican standard-bearer in the year that was passed. Barry Goldwater and many of his colleagues on the Republican side believed that the Civil Rights Act was an unwarranted intrusion on personal liberty, that you were entitled to pick your own associations.

And the Democrats—some of them—believed the civil rights bill had to be passed to keep faith with the 14th amendment and government’s role in securing liberty.

Everett Dirksen stood in the middle of that fight. The civil rights bill was written in Dirksen’s office. Lyndon Johnson gets historic credit for it, as he deserves, but within this body where the cloture vote determined whether it would pass, the key figure was Everett Dirksen.

And my father, with me as his chief of staff, was caught in that pressure with the conservatives saying one thing, the liberals saying another, and dad trying to decide which way he would go.

I remember a comment that he made as he made his decision—and he made his decision to go with Dirksen, vote for the bill, vote for cloture.

Being a businessman, he had thought it through. He believed in free markets as well as I do.

But he made this comment which I have always held on to as an example of the way you deal with this challenge.

He said: You know, I thought about it, and many of these companies that refuse I'm using the language of the time, refuse to serve Negroes are public companies with their stock available on the stock exchange. So what we are saying is, it is all right for the Negro to own the company but it is not all right for him to patronize it. That's unsustainable.

So on this occasion, he sided with the people who believed in government to solve the problem. He voted for the Civil Rights Act, and he got a challenger for his next nomination and the toughest primary he ever had within the party.

He overcame that challenger, and he got his fourth term.

I made the decision to act in concert with George Bush and my leader, Mitch McConnell and the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, and the Republican standard-bearer, John McCain, to vote in favor of an act of government as opposed to free markets when I supported TARP. And I got a challenger as I sought a fourth term, and I was not as successful as my father, so my career was ended.

My father never regretted his civil rights vote. I don’t regret my TARP vote because it was the right thing to do.

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