LITTLE ROCK -- Mark Pryor (Very D-Ark.) is this state's senior senator, and he should be thanked for making the choice in this fall's election for the U.S. Senate here in Arkansas more than crystal clear.
Talk about the halogen spotlight of public attention, the senator's comments last week on MSNBC, the perfect partisan forum for them, cast a blinding light not just on his idea of what his race for the Senate is all about, but his idea what the U.S. Senate and indeed political life in general is about.
It wasn't just that Sen. Pryor discounted the relevance of his opponent's military record in this campaign. But that the senator was dismissive of the whole, defining quality that his Republican challenger Tom Cotton has stood for throughout his life -- in rural Yell County, Ark., at Harvard, in the law and in the Army, in the U.S. House of Representatives and now as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
And what is that quality? Whatever it's called, it's something people have recognized in Tom Cotton at every stage of his coming of age. Just as the late Richard S. Arnold was recognized at Yale, and then at Harvard Law, long before he became a great jurist, some say the greatest since Learned Hand never to have sat on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Call that quality a capacity for greatness, a belief in principle even when principle isn't easy to uphold. It's not just an ability to cut through all the cant of politics but a record of doing so.
John F. Kennedy mentioned that quality in the title of the book he wrote about great senators: "Profiles in Courage."
"This is a book," Sen. and later President Kennedy explained, "about that most admirable of human virtues -- courage." It may also be the most indispensable of virtues, for without it, all the others don't mean much. Any more than even the greatest of principles don't mean much if we lack the courage to practice them, especially in those times when they, and we, are tested. To quote John Kennedy's book:
"The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people -- faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment -- faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right. ... For in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, 'holds office'; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve."
What kind of leader will voters in Arkansas choose in this year's election for the U.S. Senate -- one who courts the bubble popularity, whose idea of politics is to go along to get along, who by experience means just doing the same thing year in and year out, and confuses mere seniority with real service? The kind of politician who invariably does the safe thing rather than the right thing -- until finally he may not even see the difference? In short, a long-time politician like Mark Pryor?
Yes, that kind of politician will pay lip service to the sacrifices veterans have made. "I will never criticize anyone for service to our country and I say Thank You for that," Mark Pryor told his interviewer. End of routine thank-you. Except that NBC's Kasie Hunt pressed him further: "But you don't see it as a qualification?"
That's when the senator went right over the cliff: "Uh, no," he answered, smiling and laughing. "There's a lot of people in this Senate that didn't serve in the military. In the Senate we have all kinds of different backgrounds...."
The senator doesn't understand, does he? It's not the senators' different backgrounds that once made the Senate of the United States the world's greatest deliberative body but the greatness, the grace under pressure, the courage that great senators brought to their duty. It's not membership in the Senate that makes a leader great, it's the greatness of its members who make the Senate great. Who wants a Senate that is only representative of all kinds of different backgrounds, that is, of all of us? I certainly don't. I want a U.S. senator who is better than the rest of us, and certainly better than I am. And I and don't propose to settle for any lesser standard.
Once there were giants in the earth, and, yes, in the U.S. Senate -- Webster and Clay and, yes, even John C. Calhoun. That old wraith may have represented a clear and present danger to the Union and the very idea on which this Republic was founded -- that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Yet he defended his principles, however dubious, with a coherence and courage that even now must inspire admiration.
Give freedom great enemies, and great senators will rise to and above the challenge, as America has demonstrated throughout its history -- from Revolution to Cold War and, let us pray, even now. For that matter, the House of Representatives has had its greats, too, as when John Quincy Adams stepped down from the presidency only to step up to the House of Representatives as the great enemy of the Slave Power year after year. Even when he was accused of holding up congressional business and making a spectacle of himself -- just as Tom Cotton was when he voted against the farm-and-food-stamp bill, that comprehensive exercise in political cynicism.
The vote on that bill was a perfect example of idealism vs. politics as usual. For the farm bill combined, as it always does, a multitude of subsidies for a powerful special interest with idealistic talk about helping the needy. Mark Pryor was all for it, of course, as he has been for expedience over principle throughout his political career. Whether he was befriending payday lenders as this state's attorney general years ago -- hey, they had all those campaign contributions to make -- or running on nothing but the Democratic brand, as he is this year. And even that brand ain't what it used to be in these Southern latitudes
And yet Mark Pryor, son of a popular senator, which may be his chief distinction in state politics, accuses his opponent of a "sense of entitlement." Has anyone who has ever spoken to Tom Cotton about his politics, or his career civil or military, legal or academic, ever come away with the impression that he has a "sense of entitlement"? Any fair-minded person, that is, as opposed to a political operative for the other political party. Please. This is Tom Cotton of Yell County, Ark., we're talking about. That's where Mattie Ross hailed from, the heroine of Buddy Portis' great novel, "True Grit." And that's the quality that distinguishes young Tom Cotton in this Senate race in Arkansas.
This much can be said for Mark Pryor. He has made the choice in his race this fall more than clear. In this one statement of his, he's made it undeniable. Try as he might to deny it for the rest of this campaign.