Point of View

A common sense Senate conservative

November 27, 2012 

Warren Rudman – in a fit of exasperation about his Senate colleagues – once told a reporter, “If John Kennedy had to write ‘Profiles in Courage’ again, he wouldn’t get one chapter out of this place.” It was quintessential Rudman: acerbic, trenchant and honest.

I know the quote is accurate, because I was the reporter. That, too, was typical of Rudman. If he trusted you, he would talk to you without worrying that you would use the quote to crucify him.

When he passed away on Nov. 19 at age 82, it brought a flood of memories. I met him soon after I was assigned by NBC News to cover the U.S. Senate, in 1982. I liked his candor, and his accessibility. He would always return a reporter’s phone call. He never started a conversation with, “Can we make this off-the-record?”

In 1991, he was chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, investigating five senators who were accused of doing favors for savings-and-loan executive Charles Keating. In a private discussion with me about one of the senators, Rudman excused the senator’s action as not worth censure, because “He shouldn’t have been mixed up in it, but it didn’t violate the rules. But,” he said, “We are the Ethics Committee, not the Dumb Committee.”

Rudman retired from the Senate in 1992, in frustration at the lack of comity among his colleagues. He served the Clinton administration as chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a position that gave him access to every high-level secret the United States had. He also chaired, with former Sen. Gary Hart, the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. The blue-ribbon committee was made up of such Washington heavyweights as James Schlesinger, John Galvin, Anne Armstrong and Lee Hamilton. In its first (of three) reports, the committee warned, seven months before 9/11, that the U.S. was vulnerable to terrorist attacks “against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties.”

The commission had hoped that the report would serve as a blueprint for the incoming George W. Bush administration. Instead, the report sank like a stone, largely unheeded.

Rudman said later “No one seemed to take it seriously, and no one in the media seemed to care. The report went into a dustbin in the White House.”

Rudman was a conservative, but also a centrist. He believed compromise was essential to good government. His decision to leave the Senate came after the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act, passed in 1985 to get government spending under control, foundered when his colleagues in Congress amended and repealed it before it could have much influence on spending.

Warren Rudman was an amateur boxer in his earlier life, but ultimately, he could not defeat the habits and lack of courage of his congressional colleagues.

John Dancy, who lives in Durham, covered the U.S. Senate from 1982 to 1989 for NBC News. He later worked with Sen. Rudman on the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.

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