Analysis: Rudman's passing reminds senators of what they can be

Lawrence Jackson/AP file photo

In choosing this moment to depart this vale of tears, Warren Rudman performed one final service to the Republic he loved and served ably in the U.S. Senate. At a moment when the capital seems mired in avarice, self-indulgence, and partisan rancor, his death reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Rudman served in an era when independence, intelligence, and integrity were the qualities of a great senator, and he had more than his share of these attributes. Words that are shunned today—bipartisan, intellectual, reasonable, cooperative—were guiding standards in the 12 years he was a senator, from 1980 until 1992, toward the end of the Senate’s grand modern era.

For 50 years after World War II, the Senate was a hall of titans. From the postwar assemblies that starred Robert Taft, Richard Russell, Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and William Fulbright, to the renowned company with whom Rudman served— Barry Goldwater, Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Alan Simpson, Gary Hart, John Stennis, Russell Long, Sam Nunn—the chamber was rich with spirit, autonomy, legislative skill, and intellectual brilliance.

Yes, there were rogues and scolds and drunks. But it was a time when the national interest was identified; science, economics, and arithmetic were respected; Republicans sat down to negotiate with Democrats; argument raged, and compromise ensued. There were bitter partisan battles over military spending, Supreme Court nominations and other weighty issues, but no one dreamed of destroying the country in order to save it. The Senate had a big, rowdy bloc of centrists who would not recognize, and would no doubt deplore, the political polarization that stifles initiative today.

Amid such high-class company, Rudman held his own. He was a feisty, sometimes abrasive guy. As Adam Clymer notes in Rudman’s obituary in The New York Times, the senator was a decorated “Korean War veteran and former amateur boxer [who] prided himself on his blunt-speaking adherence to centrist principles and his belief in bipartisan compromise as the underpinning of good government.”

Rudman was of a breed that’s rare in Washington today: the New England Republicans, as tight on fiscal discipline as they were generous in recognizing individual liberties. 

His landmark legislative achievements were two deficit-reduction laws, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in 1985 and the Gramm-Rudman Act in 1987. These bipartisan measures sought to curb the Reagan era’s blooming federal deficits with an automatic sequestration scheme, much like the one set to kick in starting Jan. 1. Though lawmakers found ways to evade it then, Rudman’s mechanism forced them to recognize and address the tide of red ink. After leaving the Senate, he helped found the Concord Coalition, which has continued the fight against debt.

But if Rudman was a hero with fiscal conservatives, he clashed with his party’s growing, Southern-based right wing, which viewed social issues through the prism of religion. One of his most lasting contributions to secular freedom and civil liberties—and what he considered his greatest accomplishment as a senator—was the role he played as champion of the nomination of a fellow New Hampshire resident, David Souter, to the Supreme Court in 1990. To the great dismay of the religious Right, Souter joined the Court’s liberal wing, and his votes helped preserve abortion rights. 

Rudman alienated some fellow Republicans in 1987, when he was vice chairman of the Senate delegation to the joint committee that investigated the Iran-Contra affair, in which White House aides were discovered selling arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan anticommunist Contra forces, in defiance of Congress. In a celebrated moment on national television, Rudman lectured Lt. Col. Oliver North, who orchestrated the arms trade, on the Constitution and the rule of law.

Rudman left the Senate after two terms, in part because of frustration with the growing partisan enmity and polarization in the chamber. His last major contribution to his country, he would ruefully remember, was ignored: In 2001, just a few months before the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, he served as cochairman of a federal commission that warned of the danger of terrorist attacks. 

Times change. With every election comes hope. Perhaps the Senate will end its entropy. Perhaps it will rediscover grandness.     

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