THE SINGING SENATORS: Left to right: John Ashcroft, Trent Lott, Larry Craig, and Jim Jeffords
Once upon a time there was a barbershop quartet known as the Singing Senators. Its members were Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Trent Lott of Mississippi, John Ashcroft of Missouri, and — most famous in recent days — Larry Craig of Idaho. In addition to sharing an affinity for good, clean, old-fashioned tunes sung a cappella, the Singing Senators had another denominator: they were all Republicans, members of the Grand Old Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and — more recently — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.
If viewed from the proper angle, it is possible to see why the Singing Senators are worth something more than curiosity or a footnote in the annals of Capital Hill musicology. As a group, the Singing Senators are of evolutionary importance and Darwinian significance. Studying its members provides an opportunity for scholars, political junkies, and regular folks to better understand the final stages of how the party of Honest Abe morphed into the posse of Dishonest George.
It is one of those curious coincidences that are the delights of history that the Singing Senators made their debut at a reception honoring former Republican senator Bob Packwood, of Oregon, who later was forced to exit office after 26 past and still-serving female staff members said they were sexually harassed by him. Even by Washington standards, that was not a propitious beginning.
Then, in 2001, the harmony of the Singing Senators was cracked when Jeffords bolted the GOP and declared himself an Independent aligned with the Democratic Caucus. This was the first step in the Democrats’ eventual recovery of Senate control, but it came not as a result of Democrat wooing. Jeffords defected because he grew tired of an arrogant White House that took his votes for granted and failed to extend to him simple courtesies.
Later, then–majority leader Lott fouled himself, his party, and the Senate when he praised the wisdom of Mississippi voters for casting their 1948 presidential ballots for Strom Thurmond, the champion of the degenerately racist Dixiecrat Party. For that, Lott was stripped of his leadership position — though he has since wormed his way back into the good graces of Senate Republicans and now commands his party’s number two slot.
John Ashcroft, for his part, may never have broken the rules and regulations of the Senate, but his tenure as Bush’s first attorney general was certainly an affront to the US Constitution. In those admittedly anxious days after the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, Ashcroft presided over a round-up of resident foreigners that history will no doubt judge harshly. His sponsorship of the first Patriot Act was no less outrageous because a compliant and cowardly Congress enacted it. In fact, his fundamentalist religious zealotry seems almost tame by comparison with such constitutional outrages. But Ashcroft’s draping the naked breasts of the classically inspired statue of Themis in the Justice Department to shield the eyes of the innocent will long be remembered in the annals of prudery run amok.
Now comes the case of Larry Craig, who opposed the idea of gays and lesbians serving in the military as vigorously as he opposed the idea that same-sex couples should enjoy the right to marry as do people of opposite sexes.