The right snuff

I haven’t watched the various ceremonies honoring Sen. Edward Kennedy, but I did read a nice tribute from his good friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch, which includes this anecdote:

I recall a debate over increasing the minimum wage. Ted had launched into one of his patented histrionic speeches, the kind where he flailed his arms and got red in the face, spewing all sorts of red meat liberal rhetoric. When he finished, he stepped over to the minority side of the Senate chamber, put his arm around my shoulder, and said with a laugh and a grin, “How was that, Orrin?”

This story reminded me of one involving Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, two great political rivals of the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Unlike Kennedy and Hatch, Clay and Van Buren were not friends, although I believe they respected each other. And it is generally believed that the two, as the presumptive candidiates for president in 1844, secretly agreed not to raise the issue of war with Mexico in the campaign, a conspiracy that was thwarted when Andrew Jackson, Van Buren’s long-time ally, decided to back James Polk for the Democratic nomination.
During his time as vice president in Jackson’s second term, Van Buren had to sit quietly while Henry Clay heaped abuse on the president and, at times, Van Buren. The vice president retaliated when Sen. Silas Wright, who was known to be Van Buren’s mouthpiece, laid out the Jacksonian case in a clear, logical speech that had the Little Magician’s fingerprints all over it.
Later, at the height of the debate over a motion to censure Jackson (which passed shortly thereafter) , Clay delivered his most impassioned speech yet, key portions of which were directed at Van Buren, who was presiding. At the conclusion of Clay’s remarks, Van Buren handed the gavel to one of the Senators and stepped down from the dais. Clay rose to his feet as the vice president deliberately approached his desk.
In those days, Senate speeches occasionally gave rise to duels and even violence on the Senate floor was never out of the question. The crowds in the galleries fell silent.
Then, with a deep bow, Van Buren said: “Mr. Senator, allow me to be indebted to you for another pinch of your aromatic Maccoboy.” Clay could only gesture at the snuff on his desk, as the galleries erupted with laughter.
Like Van Buren, Ted Kennedy took himself and his politics seriously. But like Van Buren he benefited from the ability occasionally to employ the light touch.


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