Robert Caro Is Not a Big Fan of the Filibuster

Alec MacGillis was giving Robert Caro some grief about his “great man” fetish and support of the filibuster the other day:

The Senate’s problem is not a lack of “genius.” (After all, it has Chuck Schumer.) As Caro surely knows, the problem goes deeper than that—and has a lot more to do with what these guys are talking about. (And in fact, Caro arguably bears some responsibility when it comes to the Senate’s systematic flaws. The Journal interview notes: “In 2004, when Senate Republicans were threatening to end Democrats’ filibustering of judicial nominees by implementing ‘the nuclear option,’ Kennedy called Mr. Caro “out of the blue” and asked if he would come to Washington, D.C., and explain to the freshman senators the importance of preserving the filibuster.”)

I agree about the “great man” problem, but argued that this was actually Caro doing a bit of logrolling to get Ted Kennedy to help him with the research for his book, which he did after the filibuster speech. In support of that I present a nice little bit of history on the origin of the word “filibuster,” from Caro’s Master of the Senate:

And there took place therefore so many “extended discussion” of measures to keep them from coming to a vote that the device got a name, “filibuster,” from the Dutch word vrijbuiter which means “freebooter” or “pirate,” and which passed into the Spanish as filibustero, because the sleek, swift ship used by caribbean pirates was called a filibote, and into legislative parlance because the device was, after all, a pirating, or hijacking, of the very heart of the legislative process.

Caro spends a great deal of time in the book talking about how reactionary Southern racists in the Senate, particularly Richard Russell, abused the filibuster to stymie try after try at civil rights legislation. It’s scathing, but a great read. And at the end, after Johnson has completely upended the rules of the Senate, and used his position to ram through the first civil rights bill in a century, it’s pretty obvious where Caro’s sympathies lie.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.