Originally published on September 11, 2018, at TheHill.com
Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) many admirers, understandably enough, are calling for his name to replace that of the once-formidable Richard Russell on the oldest Senate office building, or somewhere else on Capitol Hill. Few would disagree that McCain is a plausible candidate for such a distinction. However, it’s also time for the Senate to take a deeper look at who it honors, and why, by placing their names on Senate property.
The amount of real estate on Capitol Hill is finite, and there will always be more senators who deserve special recognition. Sen. John Chaffee (R-R.I.) foresaw the dilemma in 1981, when five Capitol rooms were branded in one Senate resolution. “…This Congress has been around here for 181 years and we are naming rooms at a rapid rate for very recent Senators,” he said. “It does seem to me that we are going to run out of room and that there are going to be some good Senators who come along in the future.”
Spaces typically have been named not for titans of the distant past, but for recent colleagues. So it’s time to change our thinking. We should consider recycling, seeing names on Senate space as mutable, and as only one type of distinction among several.
The practice of naming Senate office buildings is relatively recent. In 1972, prompted by plans for a third office building, the two existing buildings were named for Sens. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) and Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), by members they had known well. Russell died in 1971; Dirksen in 1969. Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.), called “the conscience of the Senate,” objected, saying more time should pass to better judge a member’s legacy. He died in 1976; ironically, the third one opened in 1982 as the Hart Senate Office Building, named for him.
The idea rapidly caught on. Indeed, by 1996, with undesignated space vanishing, the Senate scrambled to find something for the retiring majority leader. They finally settled on a small portico he had enjoyed on the second floor of the Capitol, now called the “Robert J. Dole Balcony.”
Think of the last half-century as the first cycle. Would history, or the Senate, make the same choices today? Furthermore, all the senators honored so far are white males, making the Senate’s history, or who it esteems, appear even more lopsided than it is.
There’s no reason a building or room can’t be renamed — or even unnamed. The Russell building carried no one’s name for its first 63 years. It was known simply as “the Senate office building” and then “the old Senate office building.”
The Senate names spaces by passing a resolution, but there are no established selection procedures or criteria, other than the custom of honoring senators only.
By contrast, states may contribute two statues each to the Statuary Hall collection in the Capitol, but only of people dead at least 10 years. That standard doesn’t apply to buildings. The Senate passed a resolution naming the historic Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell building for Sens. Ted, Bobby and John F. Kennedy, less than a month after Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009. Proposals to memorialize McCain were announced before his funeral.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested appointing a bipartisan committee to consider ways to honor McCain. This proposal has precedent. In 1955, the Senate created such a committee led by 38-year-old freshman Sen. John Kennedy, author of “Profiles in Courage.” It consulted 160 scholars to help select the five “most outstanding” senators in history. Their portraits would be painted on the frescoed walls of the Senate Reception Room off the Senate chamber in the Capitol
But ideology and personalities also shape these decisions. George Norris (R-Neb.) was unanimously recommended by the experts as “the greatest Senator in history.” He was vetoed by a conservative Republican committee member because of his progressive politics. Today, Richard Russell’s effectiveness as a Senate powerhouse is eclipsed for many by his racist views that translated into blocking civil rights legislation for decades.
The United States and Congress have both become more demographically diverse, and recycling would allow senators who are not white males to join the pantheon. One place to start is the “Styles Bridges Room,” a senators-only lounge in the Capitol. It was Sen. Bridges (R-N.H.) who blocked Norris’s portrait in the reception room; now it’s time to supplant Bridges.
Apart from his distinctly undistinguished year as minority leader (1952-53), Bridges, a New Hampshire Republican, was a key enabler of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) during his infamous investigations of Americans suspected of communist ties or homosexual behavior. In one of the Senate’s most shameful episodes, Bridges is believed to have masterminded the blackmail of Sen. Lester Hunt (D-Wyo.) after Hunt’s son was arrested in an anti-gay sting operation by the Washington, D.C. vice squad. A year later, under escalating threats from Bridges and his allies, Hunt killed himself in his Senate office. When the Senate finally censured McCarthy in late 1954, Bridges voted not to.
Bridges’s room could be renamed, for example, for a different kind of Republican — Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine). She was the first senator to speak out against McCarthy on the Senate floor in her 1950 address, “A Declaration of Conscience.” Smith also was the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and is still the longest-serving female Republican senator (1949-1973).
There have been even fewer African-American than women senators, but several could be candidates for a room of their own. Sen. Hiram Revels (R-Miss.) serving 1870-71, was the first African-American to serve in either house of Congress filling a vacant Senate seat. Born free, he organized two all-Black regiments in the Civil War, and served as a college president and minister.
Another should be Blanche Bruce, (R-Miss.) in office 1875-1881, the first African-American to serve a full term. Born enslaved, he attended Oberlin College, became a wealthy plantation owner, was appointed Register of the Treasury by President James Garfield, and served in other posts in Washington.
If senators prefer to honor a more recent colleague, Barack Obama could join Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy — senators-turned-presidents — in having his name on a room.
A different approach would be for congressional buildings to remain unnamed, implying that they belong to the public at large, not to any individual’s legacy. Other tributes, including the rare distinction of “lying in state” in the Capitol as McCain did, can honor individuals.
Assuming the Senate wants to continue naming physical spaces, how should it decide which Senators are most worthy? One solution is to wait decades after a senator’s death, with criteria to define who is most deserving. But that goes against precedent, and stifles the impulse to recognize people venerated by serving senators and the public.
A different approach is to treat naming as a distinction that is periodically renewed or refreshed as successive generations make their mark on the institution, or as changing times alter perspectives on greatness.
We don’t know who the outstanding senators of the future will be. But as history evolves, so can the choices of who is most worthy of acclaim, and how the Senate honors them. Without erasing our heritage, the Senate ought to make room for the women and men whose contributions to the institution and the country are yet to be celebrated.