A Farewell to Arms?

Killing time here in the Capitol before the official coronation of Scott Brown, I happened by the Senate  and, as it turned out, witnessed something I hadn't expected and that we rarely see up here: a genuine, moving moment.

The accidental senator─Democrat Paul Kirk of Massachusetts, the man who temporarily replaced the late Sen. Ted Kennedy─was making his valedictory speech: Brown would be sworn in within the hour. With rows of Kennedy's old staff behind him, and about a score of fellow Democrats seated around him at their desks, Kirk, a quiet fellow with a tangy Boston accent, gave a heartfelt plea for national unity in crisis.

The Senate, he said, was tearing itself apart, and the country with it. "The polarizing standoff" will cause voters to lose faith in our ability to govern ourselves and solve the problems we face. Without quite saying it in so many words, Kirk blamed the situation on the Republicans but, as he told me afterward, "once you get into one of these pitched battles it just escalates."

Now, he told me, rejectionist thinking dominates both sides, especially the GOP side. "The Senate isn't really an institution of its own," he said, "it seems more like the place that two outside forces, the party machinery, controls."

Kirk was a tough partisan in his day─first as the leader of renegade Ted Kennedy forces in 1980; later as DNC chair from 1985 to 1989. But he left the Senate with a plea for setting aside party, and a plea to rehabilitate a place that seems incapable of carrying on a decent discussion.

He had been there for only four months, and his speech had the air of the last guy getting ready to escape a burning planet.

And as if to prove his point: there wasn't a single Republican in the room to hear him.

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