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Opinion: History Lessons — Ted Kennedy, Watergate and the Bravest Senate Vote

And stay tuned for a fake news alert …

Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death in 2009 and the subsequent election of Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown in 2010 prevented the Democrats from refining the 2010 health care law, Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death in 2009 and the subsequent election of Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown in 2010 prevented the Democrats from refining the 2010 health care law, Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

John McCain’s surgery for a blood clot serves as a reminder that the fate of health care legislation is yet again being shaped by the frailties of the giants of the Senate.

Had Ted Kennedy lived long enough to see the victory of what he called “the cause of my life,” congressional Democrats would have been able to refine the Affordable Care Act. Instead, the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the January 2010 Massachusetts special election to fill the Kennedy seat (effectively a family fiefdom since 1952) deprived Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority.

As a result, House Democrats were unable to amend the flawed version of Obamacare that had already passed the Senate. For any effort to return the legislation to the Senate meant that it would die in a Republican filibuster for want of Kennedy’s vote.

Maybe McCain’s absence from the Senate for a week or two will not change the outcome as the Republicans face up to the harsh realities of “repeal and replace.” This is certainly not the cause of McCain’s lifetime, since just a month ago, he was going on television to say, “My view is it’s probably going to be dead.”

But with no coherent White House defense of the bill, each day of delay allows the opposition to mount and GOP second thoughts (“Why again are we doing something this unpopular?”) to set in. At minimum, the extra time will allow the Congressional Budget Office to assess Ted Cruz’s deceptive amendment that offers two types of care: The young and healthy would get fig-leaf coverage and those with pre-existing conditions would be sickened by the size of their premiums.

Whatever happens when McCain returns to Washington, it will be impossible to match the drama of what may be the bravest vote in Senate history. 

In June 1964, liberals and moderates in both parties were scrambling for every vote to choke off a Southern segregationist filibuster against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights bill. Fifty-two-year-old California Democrat Clair Engle would normally have been a safe vote for civil rights. But two months before the vote, Engle had risen to speak on the Senate floor and found himself unable to utter an intelligible word.

Engle, the son of a northern California rancher, had been a colorful figure in the Capitol, always surrounded by a cloud of cigar smoke and fond of expressions like “I’m as happy as a fox with two tails.” Now, after two brain operations, Engle was in a Washington hospital still unable to speak.

But when his vote was needed for cloture to stop the Southern filibuster, he answered the call. Delivered to the Senate in an ambulance, Engle was wheeled onto to the floor with a jaunty smile on his face. When his name was called, the dying senator tried to utter the word “Aye” and then, in frustration, he gestured with his left arm in the direction of his eyes to signal that he was a yes vote.

Fake news alert!

We have now gone a few days without any shocking new details about Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 campaign meeting with a group of Russians peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton. That means, right on schedule, it is time for endless repetition of the Trump talking point that only out-of-touch elites peddling “fake news” care about the Russia scandal.

For all the president’s willful ignorance of history, this defense has been lifted directly from the Watergate playbook. Every time there was a pause in the drip-drip-drip of revelations about Richard Nixon’s cover-up, Republican leaders and conservative columnists raced to joyously sound the “all clear” signal.

In March 1973, as the Senate Watergate Committee was preparing for public hearings, Ronald Reagan issued his own not-guilty verdict from Sacramento. The two-term California governor dismissed Watergate as “the object of probably more political smoke than has been raised over anything in a long time.” And Reagan stressed that he was speaking for typical Americans when he added, “I’m sure the people are quite confused.”

After the televised hearings began that May, Barry Goldwater mustered the everybody-does-it defense.

As Mr. Conservative put it in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “The American people have never seemed too concerned about the morals of their leaders as long as they lead. In fact, I question whether we have ever been a moral country. In fact … you are only going to find one or two [presidents] who really were clean on this whole thing.”

Right-wing syndicated columnist Ralph de Toledano, a Nixon friend for a quarter century, ventured into Middle America in the late summer of 1973 to discover that — surprise — Watergate was yesterday’s news.

As de Toledano wrote (in words that sound eerily like Fox News), “The general public has had its fill of Watergate, the [Sam] Ervin Committee and the theatrics of the hearings. Sympathy for the president is growing, and with it a conviction that the media is out to ‘get’ him.”

Less than a year later, Nixon was in exile in San Clemente, California, brooding about the cruelty of life.

This is not a prediction that Donald Trump will share Nixon’s fate. It is possible that the “to Russia with love” furor represents nothing more than execrable judgment, a string of lies taller than Trump Tower, a dazzling set of coincidences and Trump’s abiding respect for the democratic values of Vladimir Putin.

But what is clear is that the “nobody cares but the elites” defense was already a cliche in 1973. And it didn’t protect Nixon from the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.