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Does Jesse Helms drink?

That was my initial reaction last month when ol' Jesse began shooting off his mouth. But within a day or two, another senator died, an older man, and one whose name you might not even recognize, and that got me thinking about other times and other senators, including a few who drank, and how on Capitol Hill, as elsewhere, things change.

And the more they change, the more they .*.*.

The dead man's name was Tommy Kuchel and his passing didn't even rate the front page of The New York Times (their obit reference on that day went to a choreographer of modern dance). But Kuchel was an admirable fellow and there were items in his obituary that deserve noting.

Like Helms, he was a Republican, and (unlike Jesse, who was originally a Dixiecrat) always had been. He served 16 years in the Senate and for 10 years was the Republican whip, the No. 2 man in the Senate on their side of the aisle. He entered by appointment, being named in 1952 by Gov. Earl Warren to take Richard Nixon's seat when Nixon was elected Vice President.

The Times made two fascinating points, one being that "Kuchel was not one who became very rich in politics. In 1968, when his annual Senate income was $33,239, he listed net assets of $134,224." These days, a city alderman doesn't show up for that kind of money.

The second thing that set Tommy Kuchel apart was he was an independent cuss. A Republican, he re-fused to endorse Nixon for governor of California, Goldwater for president or Ronald Reagan for governor. It caught up to him, of course, when they ran a conservative against him in the 1969 primary and he lost.

I covered Capitol Hill, mostly the Senate, during some of Kuchel's time, 1956-58, and can truthfully say I can't recall a single speech he ever made. He was neither colorful nor eloquent, just a decent, honest and somewhat gutsy man. Tommy Kuchel may have gotten that from his father, a newspaper publisher who crusaded against the Ku Klux Klan when it got a foothold in California. Kuchel himself spoke out against the John Birch Society and, as a Republican, helped get Medicare enacted.

Coincidentally, a day or two after the Kuchel obit ran, the Times carried an AP interview with another Republican, Bob Michel, retiring from the House after 38 years, the last 14 of them as the GOP leader. Michel would have been elected speaker next month if he stayed. Instead, it will be Newt Gingrich. And in his farewell address Mr. Michel warned fellow Republicans of the dangers of power. The AP story ended like this:

"He recalled that as he listened to conservative radio talk shows before the election, he said to his wife: `Listen to those people's venom. Ye gads, that's what people are listening to.' "

Speaking of venom, when I got to Capitol Hill in January of 1956, Joe McCarthy was still around. He'd been censured and, because the Democrats were back in control, had lost his chairmanship. He was also drinking heavily and would be dead within a couple of years.

But there were other characters, odd men (only one woman then, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine), strange fellows and gifted men and men of ambition and bitter men and no saints. Lyndon Johnson had had his heart attack and ran the Senate and was constantly shoving an inhaler up his nostrils and snorting, this, I assume, on doctor's advice. His Republican counterpart was Bill Knowland of California, out of Oakland and a newspaper family. He had huge thighs and always wore navy blue suits and long after, when he was out of office, killed himself. Allen Ellender from Louisiana, a nice old fellow who fancied himself a Cajun cook, was so much a creature of the old South, he spoke of photos as being "in white & black."

Carl Hayden of Arizona looked like an ancient, sun-baked lizard and once a year would make a speech, calling in page boys (who still wore knickers) with all the issues of the Congressional Record piled up in towering stacks. "That's where the tax dollars go!" Hayden would cry out and then, exhausted, would not speak again until the close of the next year's session.

Jack Kennedy was there and Al Gore's daddy and Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey and that pious old windbag Everett Dirksen and Bill Jenner of Indiana, to the right of McCarthy, who told me one day over lunch of a trip he'd once made to New York and how frightening he'd found the city. And there were others you remember:

Dick Russell of Georgia and Lehman of New York (and the Senate's worst-ever orator!) and Bob Taft of Ohio and Paul Douglas of Illinois and Harry Byrd of Virginia, who had a red face and a pointy nose and was said to be the most powerful man in the Senate and maybe in Washington. The junior senator from Virginia was Pat Robertson's daddy, A. Willis Robertson. There was old Lev Saltonstall of Massachusetts who'd rowed on the crew at Harvard. And Herman Welker of Idaho who drank and whose usual speech included a tribute to Harmon Killebrew, the home-run hitter and first citizen of Idaho to make the major leagues. And there were senators who nipped off in the afternoon to a room at the Carroll Arms Hotel with a young constituent of the female persuasion.

The great republic has survived them all, the wicked, the ambitious, the venal, the drunk, the venomous, the lecherous. As it will Mr. Helms. As it will Bill Clinton. If you but take the long view, you will be consoled.

In my time covering the Senate, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (Jesse's next stop) was Theodore Francis Green of Rhode Island, the oldest man in the Senate, who customarily slept through the hearings he chaired, being nudged to wakefulness on occasion by Fulbright of Arkansas.

We outlasted old Senator Green's naps; we will abide with Jesse. And, somehow in the end, the nation will endure.

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