Chris Dodd was a new, young senator in 1982, when C. Everett Koop was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to serve as the nation's surgeon general. A lot of liberals like then-Senator Dodd didn't like Koop, who was anti-abortion, and saw him as the embodiment of the Moral Majority conservatism they despised. Dodd, who was then in the Senate barely a year, voted against Koop's nomination. The surgeon general was approved by the Senate anyway, 60-24.
Dodd matured as a legislator, and Koop developed into a surgeon general Democrats had not expected him to be. Despite heavy pressure from social conservatives, Koop refused to declare that abortions performed by a qualified medical doctor were bad for a woman's health. He was a leader in the battle against AIDS—a no-brainer now, but in the considerably more conservative '80s, when it was seen as a gay man's disease, something of a scandal. Koop, who died this week at 96, also was aggressive in the fight against tobacco use, particularly among children.
Koop may have forgotten Dodd's vote against him. Dodd didn't. Years after the confirmation, Dodd wrote a letter to Koop apologizing for his "no" vote. "He did a wonderful job as Surgeon General of the country, and I voted against him over issues that I didn't really think through very carefully. And I regretted that," Dodd told an NBC interviewer.
Fast-forward to this week, and the world of the U.S. Senate looks much different. Threats to hold up nominees for a slew of offices, from cabinet secretary to U.S. Marshall, are appallingly common. Sometimes the filibuster threat is a means to another end, a way to pressure Democrats or the Obama administration to give in on an unrelated topic. And sometimes the holdup hinges on an argument that is difficult to defend: The nominee isn't who the minority party would have picked, so he or she can't have the job. It's remarkable that anyone in the Senate could presume to tell the president who he should hire to advise him, even when the paychecks come from public funds. It would be wrong for a Democratic senator to attempt to withhold funding, say, for the payroll of a GOP colleague who hired like-minded staffers to advise him or her. So why can't President Obama pick his own cabinet, short of selecting someone corrupt or blatantly incompetent?
Chuck Hagel has been on both sides of the equation, serving in the U.S. Senate, where he had to vote on numerous nominations, and facing a battle to be confirmed as defense secretary. Hagel is a Republican, he won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and served two terms in the U.S. Senate. But he was nominated by Obama, which is enough to taint any nominee in the eyes of some Republicans. They grilled him in the Armed Services Committee, which was to be expected. Some questioned whether he was anti-Semitic, based on a cheap and pejorative interpretation of comments Hagel had made about a pro-Israel lobby. And one senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, had the audacity to suggest, with zero evidence, that Hagel had received income from North Korea.
Hagel went through a high-tech, waste-of-time hazing before he was finally confirmed Wednesday evening, 58-41. In coming years, will any senator write a note of apology to the new defense secretary?