WASHINGTON – Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of LBJ gets a reader thinking about what it takes to be an effective senator. It’s not just legislative smarts, and it’s not just political skill – and it’s different in different eras. Johnson himself might have had trouble if he stepped in to take Harry Reid’s place today.
During a 45-minute interview this afternoon with U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who recently won a second six-year term with 65% of the vote, I asked him which senators he admires and how he thinks a lawmaker can be effective in the chamber. Here’s what he had to say:
I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of serving with some of the real titans in the Senate: Robert C. Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd. My very strong feeling is that the things that make you an effective senator are:
Seniority, which you can’t do much about – it is what it is – but as time goes by you need to be ramping it up to match your seniority.
Very hard work, and I demand that of my staff as well – you can outwork other offices, you can have the report prepared in advance because you know where the public is going to be.
Gradually building enough expertise on an issue so when the discussion comes and you have something to say, people say, “Oh, this is an issue that Whitehouse has put a lot of work into and I’ve heard him before on this – he has credibility with me – I trust him.” You don’t completely cede your vote to another senator, but you trust people more on some things than you do on others, and you trust some people more than you do on others because you’ve seen them put the work in.
And then a certain amount of the rest is just timing and finding your moment where the things converge, so while seniority accrues, hard work and trying to pick the Wayne Gretzky puck locations, and being there when the time comes so that you can influence the debate in the right way, I think, is key.
More quotes from my interview with Whitehouse still to come.