Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Senator North, until the last six days of the session, came twice a week to see her. She played for him, and they talked on many subjects, in which they discovered a common interest, usually avoiding politics, of which he might reasonably be supposed to have enough on Capitol Hill. He told her a good deal about himself, of his early determination to go into public life, the interest that several distinguished men in his State had taken in him, and of the influence they had had on his mind.
"They were almost demi-gods to my youthful enthusiasm," he said, "and doubtless I exaggerated their virtues, estimable as is the record they have left. But the ideals this conception of them set up in my mind I have clung to as closely as I could, and whatever the trials of public life--I will tell you more about them some day--the rewards are great enough if no one can question your sense of public duty, if no accusation of private interest or ignoble motive has ever been able to stand on its feet after the usual nine days' babble."
"Would you sacrifice yourself absolutely to your country?" asked Betty, who kept him to the subject of himself as long as she could.
He laughed. "That is not a fair question to ask any man, for an affirmative makes a prig of him and a negative a mere politician. I will therefore generalize freely and tell you that a man who believes himself to be a statesman considers the nation first, as a matter of course. Howard, for instance, nearly killed himself at the end of last session over a measure which was of great national importance. He should have been in his bed, and he worked day and night. But although it was touch and go with him afterward, it was no more than he should have done, for almost everything depends on the Chairman of a Committee; and as Howard is a man of enormous personal influence and knows more about the subject than any man in Congress, he dared not resign in favour of any one. And yet he is accused of being hand-in- glove with one of the greatest moneyed interests in the country."
"Is he?" asked Betty, pointedly.
"Those are accusations that it is almost impossible to prove. Howard is a rich man, and his wealth is derived from the principal industry of his State, which is unquestionably monopolized by a Trust. It would be his duty to look after it in Congress in any case, as it is his State's great source of wealth; so it is hard to tell. It does not interfere with his being one of the ablest legislators and hardest workers in the Senate--and over matters from which he can derive no possible gain. But the suspicion will lower his position in the history of the Senate."
"Does any one know the truth about the Senate? Even Bryce says it is impossible to get at it, the country is so prone to exaggeration; but estimates that one-fifth of the Senate is corrupt."
"No one knows. The whole point is this: the Senate is the worst place in the world for a weak man, and there are weak men in it. A Senatorship is the highest honour to-day in the gift of the Republic; therefore ambitious men strive for it. A man no sooner achieves this ambition than he finds himself beset by many temptations. He is tormented by lobbyists who will never let him alone until he has proved himself to be a man of incorruptible character and iron will; and that takes time. He also finds that the Senate is a sort of aristocracy, the more so as many of its members are rich men and live well. If he never wanted money before, he wants it then, and if he does not, his wife and daughters do. Then, if he is weak, he finds his way into the pocket of some Trust Company or Railroad Corporation, and his desire for re-election--to retain his brilliant position-- multiplies his shackles; for if he proves himself useful, the Trust will buy his Legislature--if it happens to be venal--and keep him in his place. But these instances I know must be rare, for I know the personal character of every man in the Senate. One Senator who is nearing the end of his first term told me the other day that he should not return, for his experience in the Senate had given him such a keen desire to be a rich man that he should go into Wall Street and try to make a fortune. He is honest, but his patriotism is a poor affair. But if the Senate makes a weak man weaker, it makes a strong man stronger, owing to the very temptations he must resist from the day he enters, the compromises he is forced to make, and the danger to his convictions from the subtler brains of older men. And the Senate is full of strong men. But they don't make picturesque 'copy' for the enterprising press; the weak and the corrupt do, and so much space is given them, as well as so much attention by the comic weeklies,--which are regarded as a sort of current history,--that the average man, who does not do his own thinking, accepts the minority as the type."
He talked to her sometimes about his family life. His wife had been a beautiful and accomplished girl, the daughter of a Governor of his State, and he had married her when he was twenty-four. She had been a great help to him, both at home and in Washington, during those years when he needed help. She had not broken down until after the birth of his daughter, but that was twenty years ago, and she had been an invalid ever since. He spoke of this long period of imperfect happiness in a matter-of-fact way, and Betty assumed that by this time he was used to it. He alluded to his wife once as "a very dear old friend," but Betty guessed that she was nearly obliterated from his life. Of his sons he expected great things, but the larger measure of his affections had been given to his daughter, or it seemed so, now that he had lost her.
During the last week of the Session she saw him from the Senate Gallery only, but she consoled herself by admiring the cool deliberation with which he worked his bills through, with Populists thundering on either side of him.