5 US Senators that Went on to Infamy

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A Brief History

On December 5, 1847, Jefferson Finis Davis of Mississippi was elected to the United States Senate.  He had been appointed to the Senate by the Governor of Mississippi in August of 1847.  Davis went on to serve as the US Secretary of War (1853-1857) and was reelected to the Senate in 1857, serving until he resigned in 1861 due to the onset of the American Civil War.  Davis went on to the notoriety of being the only President of the Confederate States of America, the leader of a movement that would see the United States torn apart.  Several US Senators have also become infamous for a variety of reasons, and today we list some of them.  (Obviously, such a list could occupy hundreds of pages in a book, though we will limit our scope to a few!)

Digging Deeper

Jefferson Davis, Mississippi.

Prior to serving in the Senate as a Democrat, Davis was elected as a US Representative to Congress from Mississippi and served from 1845 to 1846.  After the losing effort of the Confederate States in the Civil War, Davis was forced to flee or possibly be captured, tried, and hanged as a traitor to the United States.  Though his family escaped to Canada, Davis was caught, and the popular press crowed that he had been caught dressed as a woman.  Jailed and indicted for treason, Davis was finally released on bail and went to Canada.  In 1868 President Andrew Johnson issued a pardon for Davis and all Confederates and a court dismissed the indictment in 1869.  Jeff Davis died in 1889 at the age of 81, financially ruined by the Civil War and never able to re-attain his pre-war level of wealth and influence.  He remains a divisive figure in American History, revered by some and loathed by others.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, Wisconsin.

This Republican senator became so infamous that the term “McCarthyism” is an epithet applied derisively to anyone accused of falsely accusing others for political gain.  He served as Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957, although in 1954 the Senate voted 67 to 22 to “condemn” his words and actions, neutralizing his previous influence and making him politically impotent.  McCarthy had made his political career on a virulent anti-communist platform, especially from 1950 to 1954, and made all sorts of baseless accusations about communists in the government and in the military insidiously undermining US security.  While McCarthy’s alarmist (and fake) accusations and dire warnings originally generated much fear and serious consideration, it soon became apparent that the Senator was blathering without any real basis in fact for his rhetoric, at one point causing the counsel for the US Army to state with exasperation during a Senate hearing, “Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir” “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  This pointed question burst the bubble of McCarthyism and led to a rapid decline in how seriously McCarthy was taken, both in the government and by the public.  He became somewhat of a pariah and is a despised historical character, continuing to rant and rave about unfounded communist threats but now without an audience.  He became an even heavier drinker of alcohol and died at the age of only 48 in 1957, the victim of hepatitis.

Edward Moore Kennedy, Massachusetts.

“Ted” Kennedy, Democrat, the youngest brother of President John F. Kennedy, was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts and served from 1962 until his death in 2009.  In spite of his long Senatorial career and often influential run in that legislative body, Ted Kennedy was a party to an incident that will forever be associated with him in a disgraceful, infamous light.  In June of 1969, a year after his brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while quite possibly on his way to the Democratic nomination for President, Ted Kennedy seemed poised to take up the mantle of the Kennedy family and seemed a likely candidate for the presidency in 1972.  Those plans were derailed by his involvement in a tragic auto accident in which he drove off a small bridge, almost assuredly drunk at the time (he was a notoriously heavy drinker) in which his passenger, a young lady named Mary Jo Kopechne, age 28 (Ted was married at the time) drowned.  Kennedy failed to quickly summon assistance and seemed more concerned about his own criminal and political liability than the welfare of the doomed woman.  Kennedy had left a party at Chappaquiddick Island with Kopechne, giving the infamous incident its one word moniker, “Chappaquiddick.”  That name resounds in history along with “Watergate,” “Contragate,” “Teapot Dome,” “Abscam” and other American political scandals and haunted Ted Kennedy the rest of his life.  Although he recovered enough politically to continue to be reelected to the Senate, he never did gain the nomination of his party to run for President that he so dearly wanted.  To the common American person the incident seems to be one of a rich and powerful person getting away with a major crime without suffering the consequences (he was not indicted) an average guy would have suffered, leaving an air of stain on Kennedy’s reputation.

Lawrence Edwin Craig, Idaho.

Like so many politicians, “Larry” Craig seems to be a screaming, bloody, hypocrite, in this case regarding homosexual behavior.  A Senator from Idaho from 1991 to 2009, Craig previously served in the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1991.  A Republican, Craig was a conservative that preached conservative values, including endorsing anti-gay legislation and engaging in anti-gay rhetoric.  When Craig was caught in 2007 in a men’s bathroom of the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport soliciting an undercover police officer for homosexual sex and cited for the offense, his hypocrisy was laid bare to the world.  Craig apparently thought a guilty plea could keep the incident quiet, but of course that idea was unrealistically optimistic.  When the scandal broke, Craig tried to withdraw his plea and conviction, but was not allowed to do so.  Craig’s “explanation” to the public of the incident was that he did not really reach his foot into the stall next to his occupied by the police officer and nudge the officer’s foot (a gay activity known colloquially as “cottaging”), but that Craig utilized a “wide stance” while pooping on the commode, which is why is foot wandered into the next stall.  What a load!  No serious person could believe such a lame excuse, and Craig was finished as a politician, not bothering to run for reelection in 2008.  Craig had also been the subject of other allegations of homosexual conduct prior to the 2007 incident, which he denied.  Craig at first offered to resign his seat in the Senate, but then changed his mind.  Another 8 gay men publicly accused
Craig of having had prior homosexual conduct with them after the airport incident became public.

Harrison Arlington Williams Jr., New Jersey.

For some reason known as “Pete,” Williams had been serving as a Democratic Senator from New Jersey since 1959 when he became part of the ABSCAM scandal, and FBI “sting” operation meant to snare underworld types dealing in stolen art.  Begun in 1978, the operation yielded more far reaching results than originally planned, including the taping of numerous politicians involved in various forms of graft and corruption, including Senator Williams from New Jersey.  Williams was convicted of taking bribes in 1981 and resigned his seat in the Senate before he was to be ousted by the rest of the Senators.  He was sentenced to 3 years in prison, and served 2 years, the first Senator to serve time in prison in more than 8 decades.

Question for students (and subscribers): What Senator would you add to this list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cooper, William. Jefferson Davis, American. Knopf, 2000.

Damore, Leo. Chappaquiddick: Power, Privilege, and the Ted Kennedy Cover-Up. Regnery History, 2018.

Greene, Robert. The Sting Man: Inside Abscam.  Penguin Books, 2013.

MacNeil, Neil and Richard Baker. The American Senate: An Insider’s History.  Oxford University Press, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a wedding photograph (a daguerrotype) of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell, 1845, was taken from Flickr‘s The Commons. The uploading organization may have various reasons for determining that no known copyright restrictions exist, such as:

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.