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Filial Piety

It is xiào in Mandarin, haau in Cantonese, hiêu in Vietnamese, and Kō in Romanized Japanese. It traces its roots to ancestor worship back as far as the 10th century BCE and was first put in writing during Early Confucianism. And, it is an important rule of the US Senate called simply “Seniority”, developed in the institution’s first half-century.

During the summer of 1996, I got a phone call from Senator Bob Kerrey, then the junior United States Senator from Nebraska. He was asking for my assistance in preparing some retirement mementos for him to present to Senator Jim Exon, Nebraska’s Senior Senator who was leaving the Senate at the close of the 104th Congress in September. Bob and I had worked closely on funding the digitization of records at the National Archives, had travelled together to Nebraska, and had enjoyed working on other projects of mutual interest. A disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, Navy Seal and winner of the Medal of Honor, former governor, and a political iconoclast of the first order, he is a fun and interesting guy to be around. Bright, creative, and very funny, I really like the guy.

Typical of Bob, his mind had already conjured up the list of possible avenues for his tribute to Jim and was machine gunning ideas at me as fast as I could write. We agreed on a first meeting date and I set our staff to work researching and making rough copies of what Bob would be presenting to Jim. We had presented Jim’s WWII records to him the previous year (see my John Glenn blog), so these would be more of his Senate career.

Exon was a beloved Cornhusker who served eight years as Governor and three terms in the US Senate, never losing an election. While serving as a Democrat in a Republican state, he had gained a reputation as a strong fiscal conservative by vetoing over 100 bills during his gubernatorial tenure and bringing the state’s house into proper financial order. He built the Democratic Party in Nebraska that largely enabled Bob Kerrey to win both the state house in 1983 and the Senate seat in 1989.

A very large man with a personality to match, Jim Exon had gained a reputation as a guy who spoke his mind and was nobody’s sure vote on any issue. He had expressed discouragement at the state of politics in America and disappointment at the division and rancorous national tone. He clearly could have won reelection with Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket but was retiring and going home.

After several meetings and appropriate adjustments, we had a wonderful set of color facsimiles prepared for Jim’s party and in true form, Bob made sure to let me know that I was invited.

On Thursday, the 26th of September, the day before adjournment of the 104th Congress, the Senators gathered in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room (S-211) off the Senate floor to honor their friend Jim Exon. What I did not realize before arriving was that this was a “Members-only” meeting with no staff allowed. Fortunately, I walked in with Bob Kerrey and no questions were asked, although an odd look or two came my way. Me and the US Senate in the same room. Pretty cool.

One of the funny details that I remember about the day was that it had also been declared Senator Paul Simon Day on the Senate floor (Simon was also retiring), and all the Senators (men and women alike) donned polka dotted bow ties to honor their sartorial colleague.

I don’t remember a great deal about the proceedings of the party, but recall that while the turnout was large, it was a mostly Democratic senators filling the room.

Acting as MC, Bob Kerrey did a wonderful job of paying tribute to his friend. His instinct about the correct mementos was right on target and all photos and documents landed with appropriate humor or honor.

About halfway through the festivities he was in mid-sentence when he came to an abrupt stop. His gaze went to the back of the room, and he rose on his toes to ensure a clear view of our newest arrival. We all simultaneously turned to see to whom he was looking, and an immediate silence fell over the crowd. The room went from laughter to silence, fraternity to church, raucous to reverent.

Stooped by age and recurring bone disorders, Senator Jesse Helms, the unreconstructed ultra conservative Senator from North Carolina, slowly moved forward on his walker and lifted one hand to wave a signal of “go on ahead”. But the crowd parted like the Red Sea to let him pass into the heart of the room. As he slowly moved ahead, Bob Kerrey said with a tremble in his voice, “Senator Helms, we are greatly honored by your presence with us today and I know it means a lot to your colleague Senator Exon.”

This almost tearful expression of thanks caught me off guard. Wait a minute…this is Jesse Helms, whose contempt for civil rights, provocative quotes about homosexuality, abortion, and the American Civil War were legend in the Congress and the nation. He had delighted in whistling “Dixie” on the Senate elevator in the presence of first African American Senator Carol Mosley Braun.

This man was against everything Bob Kerrey was for, and for everything Bob Kerrey was against, yet silence fell in his presence as though royalty had just arrived.

I was getting an insider’s view of the club that was the United States Senate in 1996. It had worked for over 200 years because of seniority and reverence for an arcane set of rules. It travelled slowly in a world increasingly in love with speed. It honored its own and revered its history. It accepted without question the rule that the other person’s opinion might not be yours, but the other person had an unlimited right to be heard. And so, here was Jesse Helms, saying goodbye to his friend Jim Exon, who was leaving the Senate because those traditions of bipartisanship and free speech were being threatened.

Quite a moment.


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