Editorial: Rudman: a citizen-legislator who never lost his bearings
Warren Rudman, who died Monday at age 82, was a rarity. He was larger than life and down to earth. In the U.S. Senate, where Rudman served two terms, he was lion who reserved his ferocity for occasions when he believed ethical standards had been breached. He frequently said that he always put his party second to the good of the nation, and he kept his word.
Rudman’s courage and integrity, as a combat platoon leader in the Korean War, New Hampshire’s attorney general, a U.S. senator and a man chosen to lead repeated national investigations was unimpeachable.
In Congress, Rudman served as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. He rose to national prominence as chairman of the Senate committee that conducted a nationally-televised investigation into the Reagan administration’s clandestine and illegal funding of the Nicaraguan rebels. During the hearing, Rudman famously lectured Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who played a central role in a mission Congress had forbidden. Rudman though supplying weapons to the rebels was a good idea, but as he told North, “The American people have a right to be wrong. And what Ronald Reagan thinks or what Oliver North thinks or what anybody else thinks matters not a whit.”
Rudman was broad, not tall, a rugged former amateur boxer who moved with the assurance of someone who in a blink could drop into a crouch and start swinging. Rudman’s blue eyes saw farther than most, but he was a prophet who went unheeded. He saw the avalanche of debt building and tried everything he could think of to convince the president and his fellow members of Congress that spending and revenue had to balance and the deficit be brought under control. He succeeded with fellow senators in enacting the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, an earlier version of the automatic spending cuts that Congress will face on its return after Thanksgiving. The law, however, was repeatedly watered down and thus failed to solve the problem.
Rudman continued his fight to convince Congress that the nation’s huge debt threatened our economy and security. With the late Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas he founded the Concord Coalition, an organization devoted to educating the public about the dangers of deficit spending.
Rudman was a centrist, a pragmatist and a believer in compromise. He foresaw what could, and did, happen to the Republican Party two decades ago. “The Republican Party is making a terrible mistake if it appears to ally itself with the Christian right. There are some fine, sincere people in its ranks, but here are also enough anti-abortion zealots, would-be censors, homophobes, bigots and latter-day Elmer Gantrys to discredit any part that is unwise enough to embrace such a group.” His warning went unheeded. Washington partisanship and the painstaking pace of progress in Congress led Rudman to decline to run for a third term that he would have won in a walk.
Rudman continued to serve his nation as an adviser to the Clinton administration and, with former senator Gary Hart, as the head of a national panel investigating the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the United States. Again Rudman’s foresight was ignored. Seven months before the Sept. 11 attack, the panel warned that an attack was a near certainty.
Rudman also foresaw that his friend and assistant New Hampshire attorney general, David Souter, would best serve the nation as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and his support helped convince thn President George H.W. Bush to appoint him. It was one battle Rudman won.
Rudman’s legacy is preserved, in Concord, in the form of the great granite courthouse that bears his name, but the building is an inadequate tribute to a citizen-legislator who never lost his bearings because his ethical compass was unmatched.