Meet the knuckleheads of the U.S. Senate

The Senate has come a long way since Ted Kennedy arrived in Washington in 1962. But not in the right direction

Published September 8, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Since the passing of Ted Kennedy, commentators have noted, almost ritually, how a seemingly feckless 30-year-old transformed himself over 47 years into the most accomplished senator of the modern era. Not to denigrate his many years of service to the nation, but maybe this isn't just a matter of Ted Kennedy's personal growth. Maybe, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, it's the Senate that got small. As pundits like Alex Massie and Tom Schaller have observed, when young Teddy arrived on Capitol Hill, he was breathing the same air as Scoop Jackson, Barry Goldwater, Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, William Fulbright, Ed Muskie and Birch Bayh. When he left a half-century later, his colleagues were Evan Bayh, and Mike Crapo and Mike Enzi and John Cornyn. (And Ted Kaufman, who's only there so the vice-president's son can run for his seat.)

In honor of the most recent Master of the Senate, Salon presents its list of those senators who are not masters, those who have helped turn what was once the nation's foremost debating society into the corporate board of Dunder Mifflin. Meet the senators who for reasons of questionable IQ or eccentricity, because they are vapid, stubborn or ornery, can fairly be called knuckleheads.

Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Sure, DeMint won notoriety (or fame, if you're the Tea Party-ing type) for saying early this summer that healthcare reform could be Obama's Waterloo. But ignore that -- that's about the nicest thing he's managed to say about Obama all year. He's also compared America circa 2009 to the Weimar Republic, circa 1932: "We're about where Germany was before World War II, where they became a social democracy," he told the National Press Club in July. "You still had votes, but the votes were just power grabs like you see in Iran and other places in South America, like [President Hugo] Chavez is running down in Venezuela." That's a pretty good trifecta, lumping Obama in with Nazis, a populist anti-American dictator and an Islamic republic. DeMint may be the most fervent Republican believer in the notion that Obama has, will or wants to subvert the Constitution in the pursuit of such sinister goals as universal healthcare or saving the economy from sinking into a depression. Even better, lately he's been talking about the vast numbers of people who ask him if he's running for president himself in 2012 -- a prospect that would surely lead him to pursue even more ridiculous extremes as he courts the GOP base.

Jim Bunning, R-Ky.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Even Bunning's own Republican colleagues don't like his increasingly grumpy and eccentric ways anymore, which is why they pushed him to retire rather than seek reelection next year. That, in turn, prompted him to start cursing out his fellow Kentuckian, GOP boss Mitch McConnell, on a conference call with reporters. The Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-senatorial coot started a charitable foundation so he could pay himself $20,000 a year for signing autographs, predicted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead within nine months of her cancer diagnosis and appears to have done nothing of any substance in his time in office. No wonder the GOP thinks it's time for a call to the bullpen.

Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: You know that we know that you know why Joe Lieberman is on this list. If you need more details, please consult this directory of 215 Salon stories on the subject.

Roland Burris, D-Ill.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: We all know, thanks to ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, that "a Senate seat is a fucking valuable thing, you don't just give it away for nothing." What we still don't know is whether Burris gave up anything to get it -- but that's in part because he's gone out of his way to keep that unclear. About a month after Burris was finally sworn into the Senate (to replace President Obama) in January, he admitted to reporters that the ex-governor's brother had asked him to raise a little cash -- you know, nothing too much, just $10,000 or so. Or maybe make it $15,000. And, oh, also that Burris tried to help him raise the money, but couldn't find any takers. A day after making that admission, he went out and denied any wrongdoing again.

The back and forth would have been bad enough, if Burris hadn't insisted before he was actually sworn in that he'd never had anything to do with the corruption case against Blagojevich. But his ultimately successful effort to get Senate Democrats to accept him as one of them hinged entirely on his claim that he was an unwitting victim of Blagojevich's antics, so when he came around and said that wasn't quite true, his new colleagues promptly started an ethics investigation.

Burris, who quickly added his newest post to a résumé already inscribed in stone on his mausoleum, is now talking about trying to stick around and run for a full term next year, instead of slinking out of town. Don't count on him having any success if he does try.

James Inhofe, R-Okla.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Don't sell James Inhofe short. Yes, he's the poster child for global warming deniers. He called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," on the Senate floor, and he's used the writings of novelist Michael Crichton to try to persuade his colleagues and the public that there's nothing to worry about. He's also argued on Fox News that all this scare-mongering is just a plot by "the Weather Channel" to boost its ratings.

But Inhofe's brand of crazy doesn't stop at climate change. He believes that kicking God out of schools in 1963 unleashed an "age of perversion" in this country, and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were evidence of God's anger at the United States for our policies toward Israel. He's also said that the "Birthers," who think President Obama wasn't born in the U.S., "have a point." Given the stubborn Oklahoman's immunity to fact, his August statement about the healthcare reform bill is unsurprising: "I don't have to read it, or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways."

Herb Kohl, D-Wisc.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: There is little proof in the legislative record that a "Herb Kohl" has ever been on Capitol Hill. A small, bald robot has been spotted near the Senate office (and at Milwaukee Bucks games) bearing this name and reading questions to witnesses at hearings, but it is not believed to be a fully functioning senator.

Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Is Coburn dumb, or is he just so sincere about his right-wing beliefs that it makes him sound batty? Passion would explain his penchant for odd legislative gambits and odder public outbursts.

When running for the Senate in 2004, he told the Associated Press he favored "the death penalty for abortionists." That spring, he warned that "the gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country, and they wield extreme power," and that the gay agenda is "the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today." Including, according to Coburn, in Oklahoma high schools -- he warned during the 2004 campaign that teenage lesbianism was "so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom" at a time. He opposed post-tornado disaster relief for his own state and managed to sneak an amendment allowing Americans to carry concealed weapons in national parks into a credit card reform bill.

In 1997, Coburn attacked NBC for airing Steven Spielberg's acclaimed Holocaust drama "Schindler's List" on broadcast television, claiming that the scenes of nudity and "irresponsible sexual behavior" "should outrage parents and decent-minded individuals everywhere." Said Coburn, obliviously, "I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program."

Even Coburn later realized he had failed to see the big picture. But during this summer's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, he attempted to channel the Ricky Ricardo character from "I Love Lucy," telling Sotomayor "You'd have a lot of 'splaining to do." That should help the GOP with Latino voters.

Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Oh, pretty much just the entire debate over healthcare reform. Grassley's the primary Republican negotiator on healthcare in the Senate, and Democrats have been working hard to please him, but at this point no one besides Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., understands why.

Never mind that Grassley has said there's almost no chance he'll actually vote for the final bill, no matter how many concessions to him are included in it. He's actually gone so far as to claim that provisions in the legislation that would provide coverage for end-of-life counseling are really setting up a "government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma." What he didn't mention? He's voted for end-of-life counseling before.

And don't even get us started on his use of Twitter.

Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Long before his current courtship of Grassley on healthcare reform showed signs of going sour, Baucus had established himself as the Democrat Republicans -- and their corporate allies -- could count on. Which may be why the American Prospect dubbed him "Bad Max," and the Nation singled him out as "K Street's Favorite Democrat." He helped pass George W. Bush's 2001 tax cuts, standing behind the president when he signed them into law (though he did wind up voting against the 2003 version). He went along with the GOP's attempt to ram a Medicare prescription drug bill through Congress in 2003, even though Republicans barred then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle, also a Finance Committee member, from the negotiations to reconcile different House and Senate versions of the legislation. Baucus had long feuded with Daschle, who thought the man from Montana was untrustworthy because of his willingness to cut deals with Republicans even if other Democrats objected.

Now, right on cue, Baucus has become the Democrat progressives love to hate this summer. He seems bullishly determined to bargain away with the GOP on healthcare, even though the very Republicans he's negotiating with have done everything short of buying a blimp to advertise that they won't support President Obama's ultimate goals on the legislation. He isn't keeping Democratic leaders in the loop on his talks, keeps pushing back his deadlines and looks likely to give up on a public option as part of the reform to win GOP votes, even though they're probably unwinnable -- and even though Baucus himself says he wants to keep it. If that doesn't make you a knucklehead, we don't know what does.

David Vitter, R-La.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: If the ability to endure extreme cognitive dissonance qualifies a senator as a knucklehead, then Vitter is a star, even in comparison to some of his colleagues who seem perfectly happy saying one thing and doing another.

In 2007, Vitter's Washington phone number showed up repeatedly in the phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known better as the "D.C. Madam" who ran a prostitution ring. Vitter promptly issued a press release where he announced that he had "asked for and received forgiveness from God."

Presumably, Vitter sought forgiveness for sleeping with prostitutes, not for being a hypocrite, but the latter may have been his main sin. Vitter has supported abstinence-only education and in 2006, fought for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the better to fend off challenges to that sacred bond. (Gay marriage? A "threat" to all that is holy. A Washington hooker? No problem.) His vote rating from the Christian Coalition? 100 percent.

Vitter never faced any legal -- or even political -- ramifications for sleeping with prostitutes. Palfrey, however, got busted and in the spring of 2008, facing a possible 55 years in prison, hanged herself in a shed behind her mother's house.

John Ensign, R-Nev.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: You've heard of that old rule, "Don't shit where you eat"? Well, there's a new addition to that rule -- call it the Ensign Corollary. That one, essentially, is "Don't shit where you eat -- especially not if the woman's husband works for you too, and happens to be one of your close friends. And then, if you've disobeyed the first part of this corollary, don't have your parents give your girlfriend and her husband money."

It seems complicated, we know, but it's really not too hard. Unfortunately for Ensign, he never quite grasped the subtleties of it, and now he won't be able to grasp the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, either. (And, of course, he's also already had to give up his Senate leadership post.)

Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Evidence of knuckleheadedness: Sometimes, Sessions seems like a double agent, trying to help liberals prove their point that old-style racism still exists under a thin mask of legitimate politics.

As ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III spent most of his time during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings trying to get her to admit she hates white people. Then he took a break from calling her racist to note, seemingly confusedly, that Sotomayor didn't vote the same way as a Puerto Rican peer.

There was some irony in all this, as Sessions himself was once rejected by this very same Senate committee for a judgeship, because of a long list of statements that sound, let's say, not not racist. Like that time he called a white civil rights lawyer "a disgrace to his race." Then there's the black assistant U.S. attorney who testified that Sessions called him "boy" and told him, "Be careful what you say to white folks." Apparently, Sessions also said his only problem with Klan members is their pot smoking.

Sessions also called the NAACP "un-American" and said the group "forced civil rights down the throats of people." But it's OK, explains Sessions: His kids don't go to all-white schools, and he's even, on occasion, shared hotel rooms with a black lawyer.

By Salon Staff

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