In Praise of Congressional Mediocrity

by Bob Schwartz

Roman Hruska
Roman Hruska was United States Senator from Nebraska from 1954 to 1976. He was a leading conservative, and was anything but a mediocre legislator. But when Richard Nixon appointed G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970, Hruska had this to say about claims that Carswell was less than qualified:

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Carswell was not confirmed. And despite Hruska’s accomplishments, he is best known today for his defense of public mediocrity.

As we watch many in Congress talk and talk and talk about why they are not doing anything—except talking—we might remember what Lincoln said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Or we might go back to Hruska.

Both the Senate and the House have had their share of greatness. The Senate has been a particularly notable body, even if we can’t have all Henry Clays, Daniel Websters and Robert Tafts. The House is a more mixed bag and, as “the people’s house,” maybe it should be.

But at the heart of Hruska’s statement is the question that faces us every day when we look at our national legislators. Do we want to be represented by people at least as good and capable as us—as honest, as hard-working, as smart, as trustworthy, as caring as us? Do we lower that down to a standard of people merely capable of getting elected? Or do we, contra Hruska, raise our standard and look for people better than we are in all the ways that matter? Even if we can’t have all the best, should we ever settle for mediocre?