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New Hampshire’s Warren Rudman, U.S. senator and moderate statesman, dead at 82

Last modified: 12/4/2012 8:26:04 AM
Warren Rudman, the pugnacious two-term U.S. senator from New Hampshire who fought to tame the federal deficit and defend the shrinking middle ground in American politics, has died. He was 82.

Rudman, who moved to Washington, D.C., in recent years, died Monday night after a long battle with cancer, according to his friend Tom Rath, a Concord lawyer and former attorney general. A statement from Rudman’s family said he died shortly before midnight from complications of lymphoma.

A Korean War combat veteran-turned-lawyer, Rudman was New Hampshire’s attorney general from 1970 to 1976, before running for the Senate in 1980. A moderate Republican with a reputation for straight talk, he helped lead the congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal and the corruption inquiry into five senators who became known as the “Keating Five.”

In 1985, he spearheaded landmark legislation to reduce the federal deficit using automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration. Later in life, with former Colorado senator and Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, he co-chaired a commission that warned about the danger of terrorist attacks on American soil – nearly eight months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

And in 1990, he helped put his friend and successor as attorney general, David Souter, on the U.S. Supreme Court. Souter, who now lives in Hopkinton, served as an associate justice for 19 years and emerged as a liberal voice on the high court.

“Warren Rudman was like a brother to me,” Souter said in a statement yesterday. “A man is incomparably lucky to have had a friend that close who stood for what the founders of the American republic staked its future on.”

In his time in the Senate, Rudman sought to forge compromise and bridge the growing divide between the country’s two major political parties – a process of polarization that only accelerated in the two decades after he left office.

“As a moderate Republican, I often found myself in the middle, reaching out to both Democrats and conservative Republicans for coalitions and consensus. . . . I saw myself not only as a man in the middle but a man of the middle, trying to keep America moving forward in an increasingly bitter and partisan era,” Rudman wrote in his 1996 memoir, Combat: Twelve Years in the U.S. Senate.

Deficit hawk

Rudman served 12 years in the Senate, a deficit hawk with a reputation for honesty and blunt talk.

“I think those who really did get to know him – get past the gruff exterior everyone comments on – got to like him very much,” Hart said. “He had a very good sense of humor. He could laugh at himself, often did, and he was a generally remarkable human being.”

A pro-choice Republican who opposed school prayer and didn’t believe the Second Amendment created an absolute right for individuals to own guns, Rudman was to the left of his party on many social issues, especially later in life.

He was, however, a strict conservative on defense and fiscal matters, and fixated on the federal budget deficit, which he watched grow as President Ronald Reagan enacted tax cuts and a military buildup in the early 1980s.

Out of that swelling deficit came his major legislative achievement. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reform bill, signed into law in 1985, set mandatory deficit reduction targets and imposed automatic spending cuts if Congress didn’t meet them. The goal: a balanced budget by 1991.

Rudman joined with Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm and South Carolina Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings on the sequestration bill, which they rammed through Congress by linking it to a must-pass bill raising the federal debt ceiling.

The plan eventually ran aground on the turn-of-the-decade recession, but Rudman later wrote he was proud it “began a serious national debate on the deficit.”

As federal deficits ballooned in recent years, lawmakers returned to the path blazed by Rudman. Last year, Congress passed legislation ordering automatic budget cuts as part of a package to raise the federal debt ceiling, just as it had a quarter-century earlier.

“If Gramm-Rudman-Hollings had been followed, we would not be where we are today,” Rath said, “and he was one of the first guys up on the castle walls saying, ‘We’ve got a storm here, boys and it’s called the deficit.’ . . . I think he was prescient in his understanding of what we were headed for.”

President Obama echoed that praise yesterday.

“As an early advocate for fiscal responsibility, he worked with Republicans and Democrats alike to call attention to our nation’s growing deficit. And as we work together to address the fiscal challenges of our time, leaders on both sides of the aisle would be well served to follow Warren’s example of common-sense bipartisanship,” Obama said.

Senate investigator

Rudman also served as the senior Republican on a joint congressional committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, amid revelations that officials in Reagan’s White House had organized the sale of weapons to Iran in order to fund Nicaraguan rebel groups, in violation of a U.S. law banning aid to the rebels, known as the Contras.

During the hearings, Rudman famously declared that “the American people have a constitutional right to be wrong. And what Ronald Reagan thinks or what Oliver North thinks or what anybody else thinks matters not a whit. There comes a point when the views of the American people have to be heard.”

Reagan’s precise role in the affair never became clear, though a number of top officials faced criminal charges for their participation in the scheme.

He also was vice-chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee when it investigated five senators accused of intervening in a 1987 federal investigation of Charles Keating, chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which collapsed in 1989. The “Keating Five” senators were investigated for years, with two (Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat John Glenn of Ohio) cleared of wrongdoing, though not of bad judgment.

Rudman was frustrated by the case, writing in his memoir that he “regretted that politics had dominated an ethics investigation.”

Souter on the bench

Rudman also helped his friend Souter become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. He had long supported the career of his one-time deputy in the attorney general’s office as Souter became, in turn, state attorney general, a superior court judge, a state Supreme Court judge and a judge on the federal 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rudman and John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor then serving as President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, helped sell the president on Souter as a nominee to replace William Brennan when he retired from the court in 1990. Bush agreed to meet with Souter.

In his memoir, Rudman described driving Souter to the Manchester airport for his flight to Washington, and handing him $100 in cash when Souter confessed to only having $3 in his wallet.

“I ought to pin a tag on you,” Rudman recalled telling the soon-to-be justice. “You know, one that says, ‘Please take this boy off the plane in Washington.’ ”

Bush met Souter the next morning and nominated him that afternoon. Rudman and Rath, who had become attorney general after Souter, helped guide Souter through the confirmation process en route to a 90-9 vote in the Senate.

Souter had been criticized as too conservative by groups like the National Organization for Women and the NAACP, and all nine votes against his confirmation were cast by Democrats. But he soon emerged as a solid liberal vote on the court, helping author a 1992 decision that upheld abortion rights and writing a 2005 decision barring displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools.

Souter served on the court until 2009, when he retired and was replaced by Sonia Sotomayor. Rath said Rudman considered the nomination one of his most significant accomplishments.

“He had a high reverence for the court. He thought a great deal about what sort of people should be on the court, and David Souter certainly matched that,” Rath said.

It wasn’t the only time Rudman – for whom Concord’s federal courthouse is named – used his political skills to shepherd judicial appointments. In his memoir, he said he voted in 1991 to confirm Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court – “a vote I’m not proud of” e_SEnD to preserve political capital with the White House.

He used that capital the next year to help get three new federal judges nominated and confirmed: Joseph DiClerico, Paul Barbadoro and Steve McAuliffe, all three of whom still sit on the U.S. District Court bench in Concord.

Two decades more

Rudman decided not to run for a third term in 1992, saying he was frustrated with growing partisan rancor in the Senate and the Republican Party’s increasing emphasis on social issues like abortion and religion. Republican Judd Gregg won the seat and held it until 2010, when he was succeeded by Republican Kelly Ayotte.

“I think he and I agreed that we couldn’t serve . . . very effectively in today’s Senate,” said Hart, who left the Senate in 1987.

Rudman returned to practicing law, splitting his time between New Hampshire and Washington. He co-founded the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group supporting a balanced federal budget. (It took its name from Concord, Mass., not the New Hampshire state capital.)

At various points, Rudman was mentioned as a candidate for defense secretary and to run the Central Intelligence Agency. He became a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under President Bill Clinton, and served as the board’s chairman from 1995 to 2001.

With Hart, Rudman co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, which conducted a sweeping review of U.S. national-security policy. Released in January 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission’s report, among other things, warned terrorism would be a major threat to the country, with an attack on U.S. soil likely within 25 years.

“Some of us – Warren and I in particular – felt that these attacks would come sooner rather than later,” Hart said.

Hart said the commission worked for 2½ years, and had high hopes for the report’s 50 recommendations, including the creation of a “National Homeland Security Agency.” But, he said, the news media largely ignored it. He and Rudman met with several members of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, but not the president or Vice President Dick Cheney.

“The very fact that neither the president nor the vice president would meet with us told us that this was not going to be given very serious consideration,” Hart said.

Still, Hart said he considers Rudman’s work on the commission more important than anything he did on budget reform.

Maine Republican William Cohen had served in the Senate with Rudman, and appointed him and Hart to run the national-security commission while serving as secretary of defense under Clinton.

“Warren was a patriot, a fighter and as loyal as a friend as he was tenacious as an adversary. He had a greater impact during two terms of Senate service than many do in twice the time,” Cohen said in a statement. “Defying traditional logic, his influence actually increased when he left the Senate based on his force of intellect and energy that prompted president and cabinet members to continue to seek him out for challenging assignments. In our increasingly ephemeral society, when careers and controversies rise and fall from news cycle to news cycle, Warren Rudman’s legacy of intelligence, independence and integrity will stand the test of time.”

Tributes poured in for Rudman yesterday from politicians on both sides of the aisle. Obama called him “the embodiment of Yankee sensibility and New England independence,” and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said he “leaves behind a rich legacy of bipartisanship, compromise and dedication to the country that will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of those in public service.”

And former U.S. senator Gordon Humphrey, a New Hampshire Republican who served with Rudman for a decade, said in an interview that Rudman’s public image was “a hard-shelled, rough guy who got things done. And that was all true, and underneath – I wouldn’t call him a softie, but he was a great guy to be around. . . . He was a pleasure to work with and I liked him as a human being as well as a colleague.”

Humphrey added, “He lived a very full, very successful life, and we’re all better off for it, his having served the state and the nation. I count it a loss for us all, and a personal loss for me.”

‘A bit of a hell-raiser’

Warren Bruce Rudman was born May 18, 1930, the son of Edward Rudman and the former Theresa Levenson. He was the oldest of three children, and the family moved in the mid-1930s from Boston to Nashua.

Rudman’s grandfather, Abraham, had left his Russian village in the 1880s to flee anti-Jewish pogroms, and was given the name “Rudman” at Ellis Island.

“We never knew what it had been before that,” Warren Rudman later wrote. “He was not a man to look back.”

Abraham Rudman moved to Maine, married and secured the franchise to bottle Moxie cola. He had five children; four went to college, and the fifth, Edward, went into business, eventually in New Hampshire.

Edward’s son, Warren, was a boxer and, at 15, “a bit of a hell-raiser, at least by my father’s standards,” he wrote in his memoir. “I liked to fish, play baseball and ride my bike, and thanks to school-yard encounters with anti-Semitism I was handy with my fists.”

He was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1948. Rudman attended Syracuse University, where he was a ROTC cadet, but later said he was denied a diploma in 1952 because he refused to pay $18 for a yearbook. After graduating, he married Shirley Wahl, a Syracuse classmate, in the chapel at Fort Benning, Ga.

Then Rudman went to war. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he was deployed to Korea, where he led night infantry patrols along the stalemated front line in the final months of the war. He was on Hill 468, facing the Chinese lines, when the armistice went into effect on July 27, 1953.

“I learned in Korea that war is a lousy idea,” he wrote in Combat.

He returned to New Hampshire, went to work at his father’s furniture company, had three children and got a law degree from Boston College. He was finance chairman for Republican Walter Peterson’s 1968 run for governor, and Peterson made Rudman attorney general in 1970.

Rath said Rudman made the attorney general’s office “a superb training ground” for young lawyers. Souter was Rudman’s deputy, and Rath was an assistant attorney general at the time.

“I think he was one of the great mentors of young men and women who wanted to enter the public services,” Rath said.

Rudman passed on a Senate run in 1978, but ran in 1980 against incumbent Democratic Sen. John Durkin. Rudman had been attorney general during a contentious recount following the 1974 Senate election, which eventually led to Durkin taking the seat in 1975. Durkin had then blocked President Gerald Ford’s nomination of Rudman to the Interstate Commerce Commission.

“In retrospect,” Rudman wrote in his book, “opposing my nomination was the worst mistake Durkin ever made, because if I’d been serving on the ICC in Washington in the late 1970s, I probably wouldn’t have run against him in 1980.”

But Rudman did run, refused to take contributions from political action committees, and won. (Durkin died last month.)

“He really thought the Senate was an extraordinary place where he could make things happen. . . . I think he saw it as a great challenge where he could make a difference on issues that mattered to him,” Rath said.

Rudman easily won re-election in 1986. Even though he decided against running again in 1992, he missed the chamber in later years.

“One of the great regrets of his life was leaving the Senate. . . . He missed it every day. He loved it,” Rath said.

He still kept a hand in politics. He was national co-chairman of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and supported him again in 2008. Just last month, he endorsed Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former senator and fellow deficit hawk, as Kerrey unsuccessfully ran again for the Senate.

“Sen. Rudman lived his values,” Kerrey said in a statement yesterday. “He was wise, generous, independent and patriotic. He lived free, died and left a remarkable living legacy: A stronger, safer, more prosperous and more just America.”

Rudman is survived by his wife, Margaret Shean Rudman; two daughters, Laura Rudman Roble of Amherst and Debra Gilmore of Massachusetts; three grandchildren; and two sisters. His first wife, Shirley, died in 2010, and his son Alan died in 2004.

A service is planned in Washington on Nov. 29, and a second service will be held in New Hampshire, but details weren’t available yesterday, said Bob Stevenson, Rudman’s longtime press secretary.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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