Senator Philip A. Hart: Conscience of the Senate and advocate for the common man.


Senator Philip A. HartTo Philip A. Hart, U.S. Democratic Senator from Michigan, 1958-1976, politics was a public trust to be earned and kept by public officials. Senator Hart earned the title of “conscience of the Senate” in reflection of the way he conducted his politics. For Senator Hart, politics was the noble art of governing and governing was about building a better future for our children and our children’s children. Education, the environment, civil rights and economic opportunities for all citizens — these were his causes to build that future.

Just prior to his death from cancer in 1976, Senator Hart requested a single memorial. He chose a small state university a few miles from his Mackinac Island home. He chose a place where many students are the first in their families to attend college and often need financial assistance to pursue their college goal. In a state with many larger state colleges and universities, he chose one that matched his ideals of opportunity and service. He selected Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. In 1976 the University stated its purpose in a single sentence – a statement that holds true today – “To prepare students to function as effective citizens capable of making thoughtful, mature contributions to their society.” Maybe it was that sentence that caught Senator Philip Hart’s eye.

The Philip A. Hart Memorial Scholarship Endowment provides scholarship awards to LSSU students whose ideals and goals reflect those of the senator with selection based on academic achievement and demonstrated interest in public service, as reflected through leadership roles and volunteer activities in their school and community. The scholarship is a full-time tuition award and is renewable based on meeting the distinguished scholarship renewal criteria. Graduates of Michigan high schools and students transferring from another Michigan college or university planning to attend Lake Superior State University are encouraged to apply.

“I leave as I arrived, understanding clearly the complexity of the world into which we were born and optimistic that if we give it our best shot, we will come close to achieving the goals set for us 200 years ago.”

Senator Philip A. Hart

Remembering Senator Hart

“…Perhaps one of the most important things that needs to be said about Phil Hart is that he always kept a careful perspective on himself, his colleagues and the issues with which we were dealing. Never afflicted by an overgrown ego, Phil Hart commanded great respect for his interest, decency and self-effacing nature. It is ironic that in a world where one encounters some individuals who are a bit too self-important or a bit too impressed with themselves, that Phil Hart – so important to the Senate and so impressive an individual – has never fallen victim to those Washington maladies.”

Senator Birch BayhIndiana

“Phil Hart has set a standard to which every Senator should aspire. No other member of this body has expressed a greater moral force throughout his years of service here… One of the most human and endearing traits of Phil Hart is his natural inclination to assume the best in the behavior of others. Remember his frank and refreshing confession of error, when he said that members of his family had tried unsuccessfully to persuade him that our intelligence agencies were engaged in illegal and improper practices. When the evidence later proved them right, Phil Hart was unstinting in his efforts to expose the wrongdoing and to advocate remedies designed to better protect the liberties of the people in the future.”

Former Senator Frank ChurchIdaho

“Cancer has finally stilled the voice of Michigan Senator Philip A. Hart…his death ended a life of public service that began nearly three decades ago and included, in addition to his 18 years in the Senate, a four-year stint as Michigan’s lieutenant governor.

But clearly his fondest memories, and certainly his greatest fame, resulted from the time spent in the Senate, where he became one of its best liked and most respected members…

Early in his political career, Hart considered a Senate seat to be the best job possible, remarking at one time: ‘I honestly believe that to sit in the U.S. Senate in the midst of the 20th century is the greatest thing that could happen to any man.’

But, in later years, he seemed to become disillusioned with the Senate and its slow plodding pace…

‘You know,’ He told his fellow senators, ‘the trouble is we believe all the things we say about each other in here. We think this is where it really happens. But it isn’t. It’s happening out there and in time, God willing, we finally react to it.'”

Richard A. RyanThe Detroit News

“Philip Hart was a politician. He recognized politics as an honorable, necessary and difficult vocation. He practiced it not as the ‘art of the possible,’ which is a wholly inadequate definition, but as a discipline of mind and of will, as a profession which should carry the common good beyond what is considered prudent and possible. He knew that politics is not a game to be scored, to be marked by winning and losing, but rather a continuing challenge…

He did not seek to be ‘the conscience of the Senate,’ as some have described him. His method was not to express moral judgment or indignation, but to make the reasoned and the pragmatic argument.

I do not think he would have accepted statements…that he ‘cut through every issue to find the truth and then laid that truth out for all to see.’ He was too modest and too honest to accept any such credit. Rather his effort was to come close to truth, to work around it and there on the edge to ask his colleagues- sometimes to urge them, but with modest hesitation and some expression of doubt on his part- to take the next step. He asked them to take the risk as an act of civil faith that the commitments of the Declaration of Independence could be realized, but only if they were willing to take chances on the side of liberty and of trust.

Phil Hart was not indecisive, as some of his critics have said he was. Like Adlai Stevenson, against whom the same charge was made, he refused to give a simple and immediate response to demands for decision when decision was not called for. He studied and reflected, and when ready he drew the line and marked the threshold. Then only he would say to his Senate colleagues, ‘This is as far as I can or will take you. You may cross over with me, if you will, or stand back; but as for me, I have made the choice of crossing.'”

Former Senator. Eugene J. McCarthyMinnesota

“He was an ideal Senator, combining almost perfectly the twin roles of Senator from Michigan and United States Senator, faithfully representing the interests of the people of his state, and just as faithfully reconciling them with the larger interests of the nation as a whole.

Above all, for a generation in the Senate he was a missionary for civil rights, skillfully and successfully guiding every major civil rights bill through the gauntlet of the filibuster. He helped the nation understand the depth of division caused by segregation and discrimination…

‘Every American,’ he said, ‘should be judged as an individual, by our individual merits – and not while we are still 50 feet away, by the color God gave us.’

Often, he started out by asking why. Why should a child growing up black in the urban ghetto be more likely to drop out of high school than to graduate from college? Why should a child born on an Indian reservation have no doctor for the first six years of life? Why should anyone’s horizon be narrowed by the color of his skin or the Spanish lilt to his name?

Phil Hart irritated some by these questions. But he asked them softly, with understanding and compassion. He also asked them with quiet force and with irresistible logic and persistence. And more than any other senator in my time he was listened to, because to hear such questions and to understand them was to answer them…

Every cause he touched, he left better than he found it. Now, he belongs to Clay, Calhoun, Webster and other great Senate name. It is difficult to believe that any finer person ever graced the Senate chamber.”

Senator Edward M. KennedyMassachusetts

“During three terms in the Senate, he battled for civil rights, a better break for the consumer in the marketplace and reduction of giant concentrations of economic power by huge corporations…

Through his role on the Commerce Committee he played a leading role on behalf of consumer and environment legislation, including no-fault auto insurance and consumer protection measures.

His other major committee assignment, the Judiciary Committee, put him in the middle of battles about civil rights, gun control and criminal law and eventually led to the chairmanship of the antitrust subcommittee, which conducted investigations into drug pricing, auto insurance, oil pricing, distribution of wealth, market manipulation and related issues.

He was co-sponsor of most major consumer legislation during his years in office and played a key role in the truth-in-packaging and truth-in-lending laws.

Perhaps his crowning legislative achievement, and a reflection of his dedication to the principles of free and fair competition in the economy, was passage of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act. Signed into law September 30, 1976, the measure is designed to strengthen federal and state enforcement of the nation’s antitrust laws. President Ford did not conduct a signing ceremony, but he sent Senator Hart the only pen he had used in signing the bill…

When Senator Hart announced on June 5, 1975, that he would not seek a fourth Senate term, he gave age as his reason…He said he would be 64 when he completed his third term in 1976…

Undoubtedly age was a factor, but Senator Hart privately hinted…that discouragement with the glacial pace of legislation dearest to him and with the government’s failure to do a better job for the people also were factors.

About a month after his retirement announcement he told a reporter that it is best to have a man in office who, however mistakenly, sincerely believe that he can change the world overnight once he gets into the Senate.

‘You and I know that he’s not going to be able to do it, but he makes a better senator if he thinks he’s going to be able.’ Sen. Hart said.”

Spencer RichThe Washington Post

“The public record of Phil Hart does little to explain the effect he has had on all of us. For his greatness will always lie in a spirit that was always gentle, compassionate, courageous and decent. He has consistently helped to quiet the rancor, to soothe the bitterness during some very turbulent years of this Senate. He has taught us the value of the gentle word. He had helped remind us of the meaning of public services – that duty, honor and sensitivity must always and foremost – that service to our country is a personal, as well as a public commitment.”

Senator Edmund S. MuskieMaine