They’ve lost loved ones to plane crashes and suicides. They’ve survived polio and torture. They’ve had coworkers gunned down. They get diagnosed with brain tumors.
It sounds like an Oprah reunion, but these are members of the United States Senate.
Many people think of the Senate as a place filled with millionaires who lead charmed lives. In reality, their personal lives seem less charmed than the lives of many Americans.
Everyone experiences sadness in life—a broken marriage, a serious injury, the deaths of loved ones. That holds true for politicians too, but a surprising number of senators have suffered an extraordinary tragedy in their lives.
Even in an era of partisanship, senators come together in times of grief. There was an outpouring of emotion among his colleagues when Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May. Kennedy, the dean of Senate tragedy, has often been the hand that reached across the aisle in others’ times of sorrow.
Shared experiences of loss and compassion are one of the few ties that still bind, influencing how senators relate to constituents and how they speak to one another amid intense political polarization.
“People have a lack of understanding of senators,” Republican Rick Santorum said as he walked nostalgically down the Senate corridors shortly after losing his reelection bid. “They see us like these statues,” he said, gesturing at the marble around him.
“But we are human. We have personal lives. And we do learn to see each other as people,” said Santorum. One of the first phone calls he got after the death of a premature baby was from Kennedy, whom Santorum at one time viewed as the devil of liberalism incarnate.
Pilgrimages of Faith
Politics was not always as bitter as it is today. Historians and longtime senators say that for most of history there were more votes across party lines, more camaraderie. Senators lived here with their families. They attended the same churches, knew one another’s wives and children. They cut legislative deals on the golf course.
In the late 1950s, jet travel made it easier for senators to return to their home states. The Dirksen and Hart office buildings were added, and the number of staffers exploded, limiting the interaction of senators with colleagues. Spouses embarked on careers, leaving less time for socializing. Fundraising demands kept lawmakers on the road. “We get to know each other only on trips now,” says Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd, recalling the lively conversations and bipartisan laughter around his parents’ table when his dad was a senator in the 1950s and ’60s.
Now instead of the golf course or the poker table, senators have the prayer breakfast—not the flashy one with the motorcades reported on TV but the quiet one that convenes in a private dining room in the Capitol every Wednesday morning, a tradition that dates back at least 40 years. No staff, no cameras, no spin. Just what Senate chaplain Barry Black calls “an opportunity to engage in judicious self-disclosure.” Members say it gives them a chance to see one another as people.
“It’s very private, very bipartisan,” says Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander. “Each week, a member tells about his or her life.”
About 15 to 20 senators attend nearly every meeting, while another dozen drop in frequently. Many others, even those not publicly thought of as spiritual or religious, come now and then or when they are invited to “sum up their faith pilgrimage,” says chaplain Black.
“Friendships are formed,” he says. “And certain stereotypes are eradicated.”
“You’d Be Really Shocked”
Some Senate tragedies are well known. Democrat Robert Byrd has spoken of the aunt and uncle who took him in as a baby after his mother died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Weeks after Delaware Democrat Joe Biden’s 1972 election, his wife and 13-month-old daughter were killed in a automobile crash.
Oregon Republican Gordon Smith turned personal grief into a mental-health crusade after his son hanged himself the day before his 22nd birthday. Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico, has agitated for better health insurance for mental illness after going public with his daughter’s schizophrenia.
Among Senate leaders, Harry Reid’s miner father killed himself, Dick Durbin’s dad died of lung cancer at 51, and Mitch McConnell contracted polio at age two and was not allowed to walk for two years.
The scars don’t stop at the leadership level. Alaska’s Ted Stevens, the senior Senate Republican, walked away from a plane crash in 1978. His wife, Ann, was killed. Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, orphaned by nine and widowed at 26, eventually remarried only to have a stepson she adored collapse on a Dartmouth baseball field with a fatal heart defect. Maryland’s Ben Cardin lost his 30-year-old son to suicide. Ohio Republican George Voinovich’s nine-year-old daughter, Molly, died when she was hit by a car in 1979.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein had barely gotten over the trauma of losing a husband to cancer in her early forties when two colleagues were assassinated in San Francisco’s city hall. She was stained with Harvey Milk’s blood as she tried to find his pulse. A young Jay Rockefeller was dating the woman who would soon become his wife when her twin sister was stabbed to death in her bedroom in a murder that remains unsolved after 40 years.
Former senators have their stories too. John Edwards and Mike DeWine lost children in car accidents; the Edwards family is now dealing publicly with wife Elizabeth’s incurable breast cancer. Lincoln Chafee had a sister die in a horseback accident; Don Nickles’s father committed suicide. Conrad Burns’s teenage daughter died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Those are the stories that have been revealed. Behind closed doors, chaplain Black says, other tales are told. “You’d be really shocked,” he says.