Famous Filibusters Throughout History
segment on filibusters
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) held the Senate floor for more than 12 hours on Wednesday in protest of the White House drone policy. His action delayed the vote on the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. NPR's Ken Rudin discusses the use of the filibuster throughout history.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Yesterday, Republican Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, filibustered the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours in protest of the administration's use of drones.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: This is not about partisanship. I have allowed the president to pick his political appointees, but I will not sit quietly and let him shred the Constitution. I cannot sit at my desk quietly and let the president say that he will kill Americans on American soil who are not actively attacking a country.
NEARY: Paul was joined by several other senators, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. His actions successfully delayed the confirmation vote on CIA director nominee John Brennan. While used infrequently, the filibuster is one of the most fascinating political techniques in Congress. What's your favorite filibuster? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And joining us now in Studio 3A to talk about filibustering, is our favorite filibusterer NPR's public junkie - public junkie?
NEARY: Political Junkie, Ken Rudin. See, I never should have tried to say filibusterer.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Lynn...
RUDIN: Lynn, you've talked long enough. That's why they call this TALK OF THE NATION...
RUDIN: ...by the way.
NEARY: Now, listen, Paul was speaking on a very - we want to talk about filibustering, but he was speaking on a very serious topic on the use of drones. Is there any chance that what he did would be useful in any way, on that topic, on that issue?
RUDIN: Well, let me - first of all, yeah. The answer is yes. But let me explain exactly what he tried to do. During the confirmation hearings of John Brennan to be the head of the CIA, he specifically asked John Brennan and he asked the White House, whether they would ever consider launching a drone on American soil against an American citizen who may have been accused of whatever transgressions, blah-blah-blah, and he did not get a direct answer, certainly, didn't get a direct answer from Eric Holder, the attorney general.
So Rand Paul, who probably would have done this and he said he would have done this if this was a Republican president, because after all, he did vote for Chuck Hagel. He did vote for John Kerry, President Obama's Cabinet nominee. So he said it's not about partisanship. It's about principle. And Rand Paul is kind of a principled guy. So he said I'm going to talk until I get an answer. Now, as it turned out, he did speak for almost 13 hours. He did get an answer.
He got a letter today from Eric Holder, the attorney general. He said the answer is no. We will not do that. So ultimately, he got what he wanted. I mean he won't stop John Brennan. That nomination is likely to pass, certainly by Saturday, the latest, but he did get an answer from the administration saying it will not happen, drone attacks on U.S. soil. So people like, you know, Neal Conan have nothing to worry about, things like that.
NEARY: And he had a lot of attention for himself, I have to say.
RUDIN: He did, and a lot of people are talking about how this plays into 2016, and that may be true, might not be true. But, of course, you should also remember that you mentioned some senators, he was joined by - he was also joined by Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, who also was opposed to the administration's drone policy in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia. But again, it was really about what Rand Paul feels is a potential violation of the Constitution, and that's why he wanted to hold up the Senate. He would have loved to have broken a record, but, of course, duty called, and he left about after 13 hours.
NEARY: Well, sometimes, people have to talk about a lot of different things in order to fill up those hours when they're filibustering. And Rand Paul got some help, yesterday, from Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Let's listen to what Rubio had to say.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Takes me back to another modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z, in one of the songs he wrote - it's funny what seven days can change, it was all good just a week ago. I don't know if it was all good a week ago, but I can tell you things have really changed.
RUDIN: Well, you know, sometimes you do have to fill up time, as you said. He talked about - he read from "The Godfather." Ted Cruz, a new senator from Texas, read it from Shakespeare. In the 1930s, when there's a filibuster, Huey Long of Louisiana was reading shrimp and crab leg recipes. Some people read the phonebook. Years ago, when Patrick Leahy - no, not Patrick Leahy, I'm sorry - Harry Reid tried to hold up some of President Bush's judicial nominations, he read from his own book, which I'm sure put every - kept everybody awake. But anyway, so sometimes you do have to fill the space, fill the time, and you'll do whatever you can.
NEARY: Let's talk about the history of filibuster. Where did this come from? Who's - where did this idea come from?
RUDIN: Well, there were always was - there was always a law - a bill - the rules of the Senate allowed filibusters, meaning you could talk forever with no way of stopping it.
In 1919, they passed something called, I think, Rule 22, which allow the Senate to come up with three quarters of the vote, or 67, that would be 67 votes - no, that would be two-thirds - two thirds, no 67 - I'm sorry - it will be 67 senators to stop. It would be called cloture. That would stop the filibuster. That changed after 1975, when they said it has to be 60 votes. So now 60 votes can stop a filibuster. The problem with this is that we don't even have the Rand Paul standing up in the Senate or even the Jimmy Stewarts standing up as we heard in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," that great 1939 movie.
What we have now is the threat of a filibuster. So a lot of times, if a nominee comes up, if Bush or Obama or somebody would offer a nomination, the threat of a filibuster alone could end that nomination.
NEARY: Well, of course you were just talking about Jimmy Stewart, and of course we have some tape from that very famous movie. So let's hear a little bit of Jimmy Stewart first, as he's beginning his filibuster in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")
JAMES STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) Well, I guess the gentlemen are in a pretty tall hurry to get me out of here. The way the evidence has piled up against me, I can't say I blame them much. And I'm quite willing to go, sir, when they vote it that way - but before that happens, I've got a few things I want to say to this body. I tried to say them once before and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I'd like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I'm not going to leave this body until I do get them said.
NEARY: Colder than a mackerel, I like that very much. And Mr. Smith filibusters for 23 hours before he collapses very dramatically to the ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")
STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody'll listen to me.
RUDIN: You know, it's remarkable. The movie was only two hours. I don't know how he spoke for 23 hours.
RUDIN: But, you see, that was the romanticized view of the filibuster, that he stood up for what was right. He sit up to corrupt elements in the Senate in his own party and, you know, tried to clear his name. So that was very romantic.
But less romantic is some civil rights - filibusters against civil rights legislation. The longest in history was at 1957 when Strom Thurmond, then a Democratic senator from South Carolina, took the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes to filibuster the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
So, you know, you could talk about how romantic Jimmy Stewart was. But there's also people who try to stop progress in this country like Strom Thurmond. Robert Byrd also filibustered the 1964 civil rights bill. That is less so romantic.
NEARY: Is the filibuster uniquely American? Is there any...
RUDIN: No, they have - I know Canada, which I've read recently is - it considers itself a separate country, and I read that people in Canada have done the same thing, reading a phonebook to hold up legislation or hold up nominations, same thing in Canada.
NEARY: All right. We're going to take a call. We're going to go to Kathleen. She's in Wilmington, North Carolina. Hi, Kathleen.
KATHLEEN: Hi. How are you?
NEARY: I'm good. Thanks.
KATHLEEN: I was wondering, what did Strom Thurmond read? Was it the congressional record?
RUDIN: He actually - I think Strom Thurmond did read from the phonebook, and he did it all by himself. As a matter of fact, the key to what Strom Thurmond did was he went to a steam room prior to the preparation for this. So you know, he wouldn't have to go to the - make bathroom breaks. He was very, very careful about that. Rand Paul did not prepare like that. As a matter of fact, Rand Paul, it seems like he didn't prepared at all, and he said had I known I was going to do this I probably would have taken some steps to see if I could equal Strom Thurmond's thing. But Strom Thurmond read - I think he read from the phonebook. He read from just, you know, basic things.
But look, you know, there's nothing - it's funny to talk about the romanticism of a filibuster, and again, watching Jimmy Stewart collapse and everybody gasping. Strom Thurmond, you know, of course, was talking about stopping basic civil rights. And when you think of 1957, that was one of the weakest civil rights bills that we could have come up with. But again, it was a first, and Thurman did everything he can to stop it.
NEARY: And apparently he got ready with cough drops and malted milk balls.
RUDIN: Right - exactly right. Things...
NEARY: Strange combination.
RUDIN: Well, it a strange time back then. Of course we don't have a tape of that. We didn't, we didn't start taping the procedures in the Senate until the 1980s. So of course we don't have tape of Strom Thurmond there.
NEARY: Kathleen, do you remember that by any chance, or is it just something that...
KATHLEEN: Well, I'm a civics teacher in North Carolina, and I teach about the filibuster. And my children - my students are always very surprised that this is something that goes on in the Senate. They're not aware of it. So...
NEARY: And once you tell them about it, is it - I think - I believe I'm kind of fascinated by it, since I learned about it first, when I was very young in school. Do you find that kids are sort of fascinated by this?
KATHLEEN: They are fascinated by it, that that's part of how our system works, and you know, I teach civics. So we talk about how bills could be stopped in the House and the Senate. And it's surprising to them. So I find it fascinating though.
NEARY: OK. Thanks so much for your...
KATHLEEN: Thank you. Bye-bye.
NEARY: Thanks for your call, Kathleen.
RUDIN: But of course, the Strom Thurmonds, the Rand Pauls, the, you know, the people who stood up for hours speaking against a bill or a nomination, that's the aberration. That doesn't happen anymore. Basically it's the threat of a filibuster that gets everybody scared. So a lot of times there will be a nomination, a judicial nomination. President Bush had it. President Clinton had it. President Obama had it. And when the other party says we're threatening to have a filibuster, they said, look, it's not going to be worth the effort. We'll withdraw the nomination.
NEARY: Yeah. Let's a take call from Chris in Nashville. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS: Hey. How are you?
NEARY: I'm good. How are you?
CHRIS: I'm well. My favorite filibuster is the Stackhouse Filibuster from the fictional "West Wing" show.
CHRIS: And (unintelligible) I'd watch that show in high school. And that is the romantic version of the filibuster in my mind. So...
NEARY: Can you remind us of that? I don't remember it. So...
CHRIS: Well, I don't even know what the plot was, really. But I know that he was reading a cookbook on the Senate floor. That's how I first heard about the filibuster. And I know that that's how it should be these days. You know, like Ken said, we deal more with the threat than the romantic version of...
NEARY: All right.
CHRIS: ...people standing up and reading. So even though I didn't agree with Rand Paul, I really respected that he was doing it the old school way.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Chris. We're talking with NPR's Political Junkie Ken Rudin about filibusters. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
All right. Let's go to Colin(ph), who's calling from Sacramento, California. Hi, Colin.
COLIN: Hi. Yes. Thank you for taking my call.
NEARY: Go ahead.
COLIN: So I was actually trying to make an argument. I've been getting into it with some friends on Facebook. The commentary was - and I'm actually quite surprised how germane the filibuster was to the issue at hand. You know, I know that you made couple (unintelligible) remarks to folks like Senator Rubio making commentary on Jay-Z. But it was quite interesting that the duration of the debate it wasn't an ideological opposition to a particular nominee or just an ideological opposition such as Strom Thurmond to the Civil Rights Act of '57. It's actually quite germane to the discussion at hand.
And so I was wondering if there's instances like that in the past where there have been extended filibusters that have talked almost exclusively about the merits of particular piece of legislation or a particular candidate as opposed to general intransigence.
NEARY: OK, Colin. Thanks. That's a good question.
RUDIN: Well, that's a good question. I mean there have been filibusters in the past that did - when the speakers did focus on the issue at hand. One of the longest filibusters in history came in 1986, when Alfonse D'Amato, then a Republican senator New York, spoke 23 hours of 30 minutes on the 1986 military spending bill. And it was not a lot of outside stuff, non-germane stuff. It was really focused on the bill. But you know, he's absolutely right. Colin is absolutely right.
Rand Paul did focus on this issue. It's very important to him. It's the kind of Tea Party/libertarian view of the Constitution that is not ideological, that is not partisan. And as he said, and as I said earlier, that we would have had - if this were George Bush in the White House, he would have taken on Bush as well.
NEARY: Is there a filibuster in particular from history that you can think of, Ken, that did worked really well at dealing with the issue at hand?
RUDIN: Well, you make the case - the only time a Supreme Court nomination was ever filibustered in history came in 1968. Lyndon Johnson in June of '68 was already a lame duck president, already announced he wasn't going to run for another term. Earl Warren, the chief justice of the United States, announced that he would not - he would retire. And Lyndon Johnson nominated Abe Fortas, a member of the Supreme Court, and an LBJ long-time crony as chief justice.
And a combination - a coalition of the Republican Party and Southern Democrats, filibustered it, one, because Fortas had some ethics questions. Two, he was so close with LBJ that he would not be a true independent. And by October they got what they wanted. Johnson withdrew the nomination. That's one example of it really, really working. But other examples, even just a threat of a nomination, there were a lot of Bush nominees, Clinton nominees that the president just said I'm withdrawing them because we have no chance of getting past the 60-vote margin.
NEARY: Do you know the first time the filibuster was ever used?
RUDIN: I don't. And stop asking me questions I don't know.
NEARY: I'm always trying to - I'm truly sorry.
RUDIN: No. I know there was one - actually, there was a John C. Calhoun one in the 1800s. And, of course, back then you just could talk forever. There was no opportunity for cloture, no way to stop it. But I don't even remember exactly...
NEARY: Well, you know, all good filibusters really must come to an end. And even Senator Rand Paul's had to come to an end. In the early hours of this morning, let's see how he closed out his filibuster.
PAUL: And I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond's record. But I've discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I'm going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here.
NEARY: That does make you wonder about some of those other filibusters that lasted longer, I have to say.
RUDIN: Exactly right. But you know, the thing with Rand Paul, there's a big thing on Twitter, Stand with Rand. He has touched a nerve in this country because people who are tired of the threat of a filibuster, whether you support a filibuster or not, at least this is the way a filibuster should be handled, in person, standing - a senator standing up by himself.
NEARY: So Americans have not lost their sort of affection, their love affair with the filibuster.
RUDIN: Well, certainly better than the way it had been going on in the last couple of years.
NEARY: Yeah. So - all right, Ken. Thanks so much for joining us again.
RUDIN: I'm not finished talking. I have a lot more to say.
RUDIN: I'd like to read from the phonebook here. Thank you, Lynn.
NEARY: Can you take us out?
RUDIN: Thank, Lynn.
NEARY: OK. Ken Rudin is NPR's Political Junkie. And of course he was with me here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at how researchers are trying to tap into the fountain of youth. Is red wine the key? And Neal Conan will be back on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.
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