Undistinguished Gentlemen

Dead weight in the world's greatest deliberative body


Here's a quick quiz ripped from today's headlines.

What do Wayne Allard, Michael Crapo, Mike Enzi, Blanche Lincoln, and David Vitter have in common?

Time's up. Are they school-shooting victims in Minnesota? Space Shuttle astronauts? Michael Jackson accusers? Cast members on The O.C.?

Nope, they're all members of the "world's greatest deliberative body," a.k.a. the United States Senate.

Who knew? Really. As someone who follows politics pretty closely (it's my job), I have to admit to knowing not a-one of these folks off the top of my head. Sure, at first blush, some of the names sound familiar—Crapo especially, but that's because, well you know why. And I was pretty sure I went to college with or bought a subscription to Grit from a guy named Wayne Allard. But you get my point: Even to somebody knee-deep in the fertile field of national politics, the Crapos, the Enzis, the Lincolns (other than Abe), and even the Vitters—the poor little Vitters—somehow manage to escape, or even repel, our interest.

And they're not alone. For instance, who, outside of Buckeye State voters (or obsessive followers of the Washingtonienne micro-scandal), has really ever heard of Mike DeWine or George Voinovich? Or, more important, have any idea of what these guys stand for? I'm from New Jersey and was around the first time the cadaverous bazillionaire Frank Lautenberg bought a Senate seat, so I know him as more than just the guy who replaced ethically challenged Robert Torricelli (himself best-known for ongoing Senate investigations into his very senatoritude and dating Bianca Jagger) during the late stages of the 2002 election. But it's a rare thing indeed when senators—and there are only 100 of them—make any sort of impression on the public, especially outside of their home states.

I got to thinking about the unbearable lightness of being of most U.S. senators the other day while reading someone else's newspaper on the D.C. Metro. From across the aisle, The Washington Post headline read: "With Sarbanes Retiring, Senate Interest Simmers: Open Seat in Md. Seen as 'Once-in-a-Lifetime' Chance." Senator Paul Sarbanes is packing it in after almost 30 years in the upper chamber; his main claim to fame, judging from the professional obits he's received so far, is his Greek heritage (important in a state—and to an ethnic group—still living down Spiro Agnew's ignoble end) and the Sarbanes-Oxley law, a widely derided, almost certain-to-be-ineffective accounting rules overhaul pushed in the wake of the Enron meltdown. But if you live outside of Maryland or aren't an accountant, you'd be forgiven for not having a clue as to who hell Paul Sarbanes ever was. In fact, you'd be expected not to have any idea.

We'll remember Sarbanes in his absence as we did in his presence. Which is to say: not at all.

But as he goes gentle into that good night of a post-political life (i.e., to collecting all the debts from well-connected people he helped out over the years), we might also put in a good word for him. After all, are the Sarbaneses—and the Allards, the Crapos, ad nauseaum—any worse than the senators whose names and faces and (worse yet) politics we do know?