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Mitch McConnell
  Senator Mitch Mc Connell Interview  CSPAN  January 10, 2015 11:34am-11:55am EST

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senator baker became the republican leader when senator byrd became the democratic leader. they worked together. they got the panama canal treaty passed together. senator baker had to face senator byrd. he said, he went up to senator byrd the other day and said, i'm going to make a deal. i won't surprise you if you don't surprise me. byrd said let me think about that. at the end of the day, byrd came back and said, i agree. that was the working relationship. they did not blind side each other. that kind of cooperation helped make the senate work. even when they were fighting they did it i the rules and they respected each other as colleagues. >> donald richie, thank you very much. >> my pleasure. >> at about 20 minutes, we continue our look at the visitor role of the senate majority leader with a lecture from
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robert byrd of virginia. first, the conversation from 2010 was senator mitch mcconnell, the incoming senate majority leader for the 114th congress, which convenes in january 6. he talks about the history and traditions of the united states senate. >> senator mcconnell, as you come to work each day, you look at this building, what does it represent to you? >> the history of the united states. and the symbol of the greatest democracy and the oldest democracy in the world. and i think about it really almost every day as i walk into a structure that had only then partially opened in may of 1800 when the government moved here from philadelphia, and had been developing in phases. the greatest development, i guess, prior to the civil war. >> this office itself, describe it for someone who's never been here and what has happened here in the past.
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>> this particular space on the capitol is actually habitable right at the beginning when the government came down here from philadelphia. i don't know whether the walls were in place in the same way. but the house of representatives, which was much smaller, met in this area. and the historic 36th ballot house of representatives vote determined whether thomas jefferson or aaron burr would become president happened right here. they ended up in a tie. they said why not go for the top job. he threw it in the house. it took 36 ballots.
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after that, the house moved down to statutory hall and this is the place they began the library of congress which conveniently a few years later in the war of 1812 provided the fuel for the british when they burned the capitol. they also burned the white house while they were here. and interestingly enough, that of course destroyed the library. and when the library was restarted, it was started with thomas jefferson's books which he donated to the government and are still on display. they have thomas jefferson's books there. >> henry clay seems to be inescapable as you're walking to the office, you go across the hall in the old senate chamber. what is it about henry clay that interests you and do you think about him sometimes?
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>> henry clay was kentucky's most famous statesman. ran for president three times. never made it. after which he declared he'd rather be right than president. he didn't say that before he was trying to be president. many people felt that clay was a great compromiser. involved in a compromise in 1820 that involved admission of new states, whether they would be free or slave states, which kicked off a great debate in congress over slavery. he somehow managed to reconcile the differences and 30 years later, in 1850 toward the end of his life, he died two years later. was the compromise of 1850 upon which i did my senior thesis in college. and that was yet another admission of new states, whether they would be slaves or free. clay was widely credited over those years as trying to figure away for the country do expand and still remain a union.
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even though clay was a slave holder, as many in kentucky were, he was for union first. had he lived to the civil war, my guess is me would have been a union guy. and in kentucky, we had brother against brother. we never seceded. but we're torn in the civil war some went north, some went south. clay would have done it for the union. >> where in this building do you most feel his presence? >> i think here. this is where i am most of the time. i assume that clay was in this building, in this space, frequently. this space was home at various times in the history of the capital, of the supreme court offices. the vice president had the offices in here. since the early 50's. since the time of robert taft, the republican leader from ohio, it's been the office of the republican leader of the senate whether the party was in the majority or the minority, we didn't switch offices.
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for the last 50 or 60 years, it has been continuously used as the office of the republican leader of the senate. >> across the hall at the old senate chamber, talking clay. his nickname back then it was dictator. do you get a sense of not only him but the history of the senate when you walk into the old senate chamber? >> in particular, that's where the great debates occurred with clay and webster and calhoun. they were more famous than the people who got to be president with the exception of andrew jackson. it was a period of senate dominance in our history. the chamber is remarkably small. it is amazing they could get many people in. before radio or television listening to a senate debate was
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great entertainment. when people knew clay or webster was going to speak, they wanted to get in and listen to it. clay was among the better speakers in the history of our country and quite possibly the best and most persuasive speaker in that era. >> what does the senate use that space for now he? >> today it's used primarily for occasional meetings. and to display to tourists. it's open to tourists virtually every day the capitol is open. we use it occasionally for the party conferences. the democrats use it for party conferences from time to time. but for the most part, its's a ceremonial space now, not one continuously used. >> as you walk down the hall in 1860, the senate moves to the current chamber. take us up to today. when you walk into that chamber,
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what are some of the thoughts that go through your head? >> there is rarely a day goes by that i don't think of the responsibility that we've all been given by our constituents to take care of the nation, to look out for the present and the future. we have great debates even today and great speakers even though listening to politicians speak is no longer high on the list of people's entertainment priorities. we have 100 dedicated men and women and different points of view who are all equally dedicated to our country and what it stands for. although we may have different approaches to issues that come before us, we all have a common belief in america and its destiny. >> you came here as a senator in 1985, right when television began covering the senate. what
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what is your impression of how that changed or did not change? >>ironically, i believe the first issue was the vote in the senate. i was one of 15 who voted against it. i think i was wrong. i think television has done no damage whatsoever to the senate. it's probably a good thing that we did that. but i did vote against it. >> there's a tradition in there of signing the desks, and henry clay has a special desk. can you explain to us the desks in the desks in the senate chamber? the ones -- >> in the early part of the 20th -- well, all of the desks are in originals now. i mentioned earlier in our discussion the british burning the capitol. obviously that destroyed the first set of desks. but since that time, all of the desks are still in use. obviously the number of desks has grown as the number of states have grown over the
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years. there weren't 100 desks in there after they rebuilt the desks after the british. but when i was a senior senator from kentucky and not the republican leader, i used a clay desk, it was a resolution that i got passed by the senate assigning the clay desk to the senior senator from kentucky whoever that is. when i became the republican leader, i passed it off to my junior colleague because there's also a leader desk that has significance that has been used continuously by republican leaders since the '30s and i wanted to be a part of that as well. and in response to your earlier question about carving your name in the -- in the drawer, that began in the early part of the 20th century so henry clay's desk did not have henry clay carved in there by henry clay. but you will see famous names on many of the desks that go back to when that started -- when that custom started in the early part of the 20th century.
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>> when the senate works at its best? >> well, the senate is a place of -- the senate works at its best when there's unlimited debate and no rules. it's hard to understand, in the united states senate, if a bill is called up, you can offer any kind of amendment to that bill. it has unlimited debate unless 60 senators want to end the debate. we are a free flowing and slow moving legislative body. in fact washington was reported to have been asked as he presided over the constitutional convention. what do you think the senate is going to be like? and i'm told that washington replied it's going be like a saucer under a teacup. the tea is going to slosh out of the cup in the saucer and cool off. in other words, it was sort of going to be the brakes in the
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american legislative process. the house they anticipated would be a place of great passion and quick reaction. and that's the way it's remained for all these years. the house will do things quickly. typically does things quickly. the majority can run the house. the senate takes a super majority of 60 to do almost everything. so rarely does either party achieve a 60-vote threshold in the senate. which means the minority party has some power. power to insist on changing things. occasionally the power to stop something all together. so things don't move quickly in the senate. it is the cooling off place as washington predicted. >> on the other side of the coin, when is the senate not at its best? >> i think the senate is always at its best. i don't have many complaints about the senate. i think it's important there be a place in the legislative process where things are thought over, where things are rarely done on a purely partisan basis.
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it almost always takes some kind of bipartisan buy-in to do something in the senate. so it is sort of an institution that moves things to the political center. in and kind of takes away the extremes on the political right and the political left. and i think that's been part of the genius of the american experiment that we have avoided as a government, wide swings to the left or to the right, except on rare occasions when one party or the other has had a huge majority and the white house. >> going to go back to a little bit of history. besides this office, do you have a place or two inside the capitol that you enjoy taking visitors to? what would that be? >> my favorite place is the the area outside of the senate chamber. and i'll describe -- excuse me.
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my favorite place is the area outside of the senate chamber and i'll describe why i like it. back in the '50s when lbj lyndon johnson was the democratic leader, he appointed a young senator named john f. kennedy to be in charge of a committee that picked the five greatest senators of all time. in and they went through a laborious process of picking five. in a and the three unanimous
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picks, not surprisingly were henry clay, daniel webster, and john c. calhoun, the famous senators of the precivil war period. and each of those senators is depicted by a portrait in the waiting room off of the area of the senate, i've taken constituents there a number of times. one of the favorite things i like to do as constituents is i have them stand at a certain place and walk across the room and keep their eyes on henry clay's eyes. and henry clay's eyes will follow them all the way across which is a good way of introducing my constituents to the fact that henry clay, our kentuckian, is a person quite famous in american history and they will always -- the youngsters always remember because the eyes follow them all the way across the way. >> you mentioned before he was from kentucky which was a slave holding state at the time, how important do you think it is to tell the story of the role that slave labor played in building of the capitol? >> i think it is important. it's a reflection on what america was at the time. and we have worked hard to cure our original sin of slavery and i think most americans think that we took the ultimate step when we elected an african-american as president of the united states. that the ultimate political job in this country and an indication of no matter where america may have started out, we
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are constantly working on our deficiencies, our mistakes, and trying to correct them and get past them. and we were not the only country him and in the world that had slavery in that era. so we shouldn't feel uniquely guilty about it. because there were other countries that had it. but it was awful at the time. and the people, even many of our leaders who owned slaves knew it was awful. washington, for example, was embarrassed by the fact that he owned slaves but he was torn. he was worried about leaving martha without the slaves but also worried about his own legacy. so the compromise that washington settled on in terms of his own personal legacy was to give martha a life estate and give slaves freedom upon her death. but that was a man who knew even in that era when lots of people owned slaves, not only in the united states but around the
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world, that it was something to be ashamed of. he was not proud of it, and worried about it researching his image. -- besmirching his image. >> as you walk from your office to the middle of the building, you come to the rotunda. can you describe for people in your experience and feelings as you go to that place and your sense of history? >> each state is allowed two statues. as you walk to the rotunda, you can see on display, around the capitol and in that area some of the most famous people in american history. you can see ronald reagan who has recently been added by california. you'll see general eisenhower, who is depicted in his military uniform, which i think he would have preferred over civilian uniform even though he became president subsequently. >> so much we have two more minutes. so much history is taking place
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inside that rotunda. is there an event that you have attended their that has resonated with you? >> i've been to many events in the rotunda. the one i remembered the most was when i was 23 years old. i had been an intern -- a summer intern in one of the kentucky senators offices the summer before. and i came by to visit him. i happened to be here on the day lyndon johnson was going to sign the voting rights act of 1965, one of the two important civil rights measures of the mid '60's. and senator cooper grabbed me by the arm and said i'm going take you to the rotunda. and there i was, in the rotunda, conspicuously in the back, witnessing this mountain of a man, lyndon johnson signing the voting rights act of 1965. it made an indelible impression on me. and ironically, just a couple of
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years ago, we were celebrating the centennial of lbj's birth. and i was involved in the ceremony in the rotunda. with lucy baines johnson representing the johnson family. i had never met her before, and i said, well, i had one experience when i was in the vicinity of your father. and she said, oh, what was that? and i told her that i had been there at the time he signed the voting rights act. she said, i was there too. and she proceeded to tell me that he had put her in the presidential limousine and taken her to the capitol because that was something he thought she needed to witness. and she asked him on the way down, daddy, as she put it, why are you going to have senator dirksen there? he's a republican. and l.b.j. told his daughter dirksen played an important role in making the bill bipartisan and making it more likely that the american people would accept it and he thought it was important for dirksen to be
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there to get his share. that's the story she told me. everybody knew you were there, but nobody knew i was there. [laughter] >> the last question -- and i'll end where we started. when you look at the dome on the way to work, what does the dome of the capitol symbolize to you? >> it is the most conspicuous feature, from a distance, of the most important symbol of democracy in the world. although i have come to work every day here for 25 years, it never fails to impress me. >> senator mcconnell, thank you so much for your time. >> that was senator mitch mcconnell, speaking in 2010. he is the senate majority leader for the 114th congress, which convened on january 6. we continue with our look of the historical role of the senat