MICHIGAN CITY | The United States Senate historian spoke Sunday at the fourth program of the 60th season of the Purdue North Central Sinai Forum at Elston Middle School.
Robert Baker was called “the collector and keeper of the Senate’s memories,” by Wendy Levenfeld, Sinai Forum director, as she introduced him.
Baker took the opportunity to give the audience a preview of his 2013 book, "The American Senate."
Baker said he is frequently asked the characteristics of an “outstanding” senator are, what the relations are among senators, and the major changes he has seen in the Senate over the years.
“Somebody with enough experience and stature to tell you directly when he or she believes you are making the mistake,” Baker said.
Baker said relations among senators are “awful,” but no different than they ever were throughout history, when duels and fistfights broke out on the senate floor.
“Relations among senators have always, always bordered on the frosty. There is simply too much at stake and differences of opinion are too intense to keep intact,” Baker said. “An adversary today may be a provider of crucial support tomorrow; that is what keeps the place from blowing apart.”
Major changes in the Senate, Baker said, include the constitutional amendment for direct election of senators, the emergence of party floor leaders in the 1940s and 1950s, and filibuster reform.
“The Senate is a body in motion despite its currently stalled appearance,” Baker said. “Most of the major changes have arrived at a glacial pace.”
Baker said one fairly recent change is the “increasingly visible presence of Capitol police. ... armed to the teeth.”
“The Capitol has a long history of being a magnet for violence,” Baker said. “A stringent security system ended forever the ability of citizens to wander at leisure through ... It has, sadly, become an armed camp, surrounded by barricades.”
Despite this, Baker called his role a “once in a lifetime, terrific job,” and reminded the audience a “massive Senate database” is accessible online, where researches can access biographical information and photos of senators throughout history.