Conscience of the Senate

Published: April 12, 2024

By Jim Lichtman
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Photo: Ji Pak on Unsplash

Continued from Tuesday’s commentary, I offer two Senate leaders from the past. Tuesday, I spoke of the integrity of Republican John Williams. Today, I offer the character of Senator Philip Hart as excerpted with permission from The Buying of the Congress (1998) by Charles Lewis, whose response appeared in my book, “What Do You Stand For?”

John Williams and Philip Hart could not have been more different from each other politically (a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat), geographically (Delaware and Michigan), and professionally (the owner of a small business and a big-city lawyer). But both men were dead honest, modest and unpretentious.

An infantryman wounded on D-Day during World War II, Hart had earlier earned a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and a law degree at the University of Michigan. Before entering politics, he worked in a Detroit law firm. As a novice political candidate in 1950, biographer Michael O’Brien noted in Philip Hart: The Conscience of the Senate, Hart did not interact well with strangers, was reluctant to ask people to vote for him, and sometimes even apologized for running for office. Hart lost his first election, for Secretary of State, and following a stint as a U.S. Attorney, he was elected to statewide office as Michigan’s lieutenant governor in 1954 and was reelected in 1956. He was elected to the Senate in 1958 and served there until his death from cancer in 1976.

Hart was known as an author and sponsor of important legislation in the areas of civil rights (he was a leader in the fight for the 1956 Voting Rights Act), antitrust enforcement, and consumer and environmental protection. But most unusual, then and today, Hart frequently took difficult, courageous stands on issues directly against his own political self-interest.

In late 1968, for example, a staff aide on the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee, which Hart chaired, proposed that the subcommittee investigate the automobile industry. As recounted in O’Brien’s book, Hart met the aide, Donald Randall, in the hallway:

“Don, I understand you’re recommending we go into investigation of the automobile business,” Hart observed.

“Yes, sir,” said Randall.

“Do you know that I’m running for re-election next year?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know I’m from Michigan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know that the biggest business in my state is the auto industry, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do you know that if I lose, you lose?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you still want to do it?” Hart asked.

“Yes, sir,’ Randall replied.

“Well,” Hart said, “go do it.”

For more than a year, Hart’s subcommittee held hearings on abuses in the automobile-repair business. Hundreds of angry car owners, frustrated mechanics, and auto-industry experts testified about the rampant incompetence and exploding costs in the multibillion-dollar business. The owner of an automobile-diagnostic center in Denver testified that tests on 5,000 cars in his shop revealed that only one of every 100 cars was being repaired properly.

Today a Senate office building is named after Hart, and inscribed in marble is the following:

This building is dedicated by his colleagues to the memory of Philip A. Hart with affection, respect, and esteem. A man of incorruptible integrity and personal courage strengthened by inner grace and outer gentleness, he elevated politics to a level of purity that will forever be an example to every elected official. He advanced the cause of human justice, promoted the welfare of the common man, and improved the quality of life. His humility and ethics earned him his place as the conscience of the Senate.

More than any other time, the House of Representatives and Senate need the integrity of Hart and Williams.


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