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Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004 02:20 pm

Look at U.S. Senators is a valuable, though uneven, political history

An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818-2003 By David Kenney and Robert E. Hartley. Southern Illinois University Press. 256 pages, $30

Most Illinoisans could only reply with a blank expression if asked to identify the likes of Jesse Burgess Thomas or Richard Montgomery Young or Otis Ferguson Glenn or James M. Slattery. Yet, at one time, each represented the Sucker State in the United States Senate. Political fame is fleeting, a fact I discovered while teaching a class at Eastern Illinois University in the early 1990s. Trying to illustrate a now-forgotten point, I invoked the name of Charles Percy and received the reply described above. Though only out of office five or six years, the former senator was not even a memory to the 19- and 20-year-olds in that classroom.

An Uncertain Tradition, a much-anticipated work by David Kenney and Robert E. Hartley, will give people a place to go for basic information about the men and one woman who have represented our state in the world's most exclusive club. Kenney has enjoyed a distinguished career as a political scientist and an official in the James Thompson administration. For his part, Hartley was an outstanding commentator on the state's politics during his years as editor-in-chief of the late, lamented Lindsay-Schaub newspaper chain and has added to that reputation in recent years with valuable and highly-readable works on Paul Powell and the Lewis and Clark expedition.

With such a distinguished parentage, this volume raises high expectations. While the authors do not identify who wrote a particular chapter, those familiar with their previous works (Kenney's biography of Gov. William Stratton and Hartley's books) will, no doubt, reach their own conclusions. Perhaps because of the shared authorship, the book has an uneven quality.

Those familiar with Illinois history will encounter some rather startling assertions. For instance, John M. Palmer, who won the governorship as a Republican, failed to gain it as a Democrat, and went to the Senate as a Democrat, and ran for president on the reactionary "Gold Democrat" ticket in 1896, is described on page 92 as standing "below only Abraham Lincoln in the ranks of eminent statesmen coming out of Illinois in the nineteenth century." Paul Douglas, in this reader's opinion, deserves better than he receives in this book.

Others will find the decisions on who received separate chapters interesting and debatable. Inexplicably, Stephen A. Douglas is lumped with James Shields while Adlai Stevenson III gets his own chapter.

On the positive side, the book is very good on Percy and Everett M. Dirksen and, as noted earlier, in shedding light on the long-forgotten. This volume will take its place as a "must" for the bookshelf of those interested in our state's history and politics.

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