WASHINGTON — SEN. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire is going. But he isn't going silently. Senator Rudman sat down for a chat one rainy Friday recently in his Hart Building office with its two-story windows and tried to explain why he's leaving the Senate at the height of his career.
Mr. Rudman, one of the most respected men in the Senate, says: "I am tired of being a participant in an institution that has been unable to deal with the most fundamental problem facing the country: i.e, its fiscal health.
"And being a results-oriented, somewhat action-oriented person, I found the level of personal frustration such that I no longer had enthusiasm for the work, and the thought of doing it for six more years ... was very unappetizing and unappealing."
It's difficult to imagine this dynamic man spending the rest of his life in a hammock with a cold drink. He took on 11 challengers in 1980 when he ran in the Republican primary for United States senator, beat the other 10, and then soundly defeated Democratic incumbent John Durkin.
Rudman, a self-described history buff, says that when he started, the Senate wasn't much different from what he'd expected from the biographies he had read of its members.
"It was a place in which major issues facing the country would be deliberately and carefully debated and decisions made," he says. "And the first three or four years were like that."
But, since then, the whole political system and the amount of partisanship has changed. "The Senate is now less than the sum of its parts," he says. "I guess that's the best way I can put it, which is really sad.
"There's been a synergism of the people and the institution that have created greatness in many instances. And we sure haven't done much in the way of greatness in the last 12 years."
Rudman has a way of sitting without relaxing, waiting for the next question or problem, poised to head it off. He has a flinty quality, a tough seam of granite that a winning smile like movie star Jimmy Cagney's doesn't quite cover up.
What has unraveled Congress, he says, is the loss of power by the political parties, the manipulation of the media by politicians, and the waning of a team-player spirit within the parties. The parties used to be able to deal with each other. After major fights, they'd compromise.
"I've read often of the lives of [Senators] Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen. Those two men had some very fundamental disagreements about a lot of things but they were able to ... work out compromises that would advance the interests of the country because they had some control over their respective sides of the aisle. I mean right now [Senate majority leader] George Mitchell and [Senate minority leader] Robert Dole preside over a group of independent contractors, to a large extent."
Rudman's criticism of the lack of discipline, authority, and unity of purpose he sees in the Senate may have its roots in his own disciplined life: He graduated from the Valley Forge Military Academy and earned a BS from Syracuse University before becoming a US Army officer, then rose to company commander in the infantry during the Korean War. He won the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry badge, and was discharged as a captain.
Six years later he'd won a law degree from Boston College and had begun practicing law as a partner in a Nashua, N.H., firm. Shortly after he became legal counsel to Republican Gov. Walter Peterson, the governor appointed him state attorney general. Just five years later he was elected president of the National Association of Attorneys General. In 1952, he married the former Shirley Wahl. They have three children: Laura, Alan, and Debra.
In the Senate, Rudman has distinguished himself as the coauthor of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law, vice-chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and recently was named to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is famous for his role as vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee investigating the Iran-contra affair.
Those hearings, he says, smiling, "made me a national figure. I can't go anywhere without people remembering that, and talking about that, even today."
He says the hearings taught him about the frailties of people in government and the problems in a government not run on "strict constitutional principles." It also made him aware of the "bucaneer element" within administrations.
"It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, other than my time of service in Korea," he says. "Because you really got to the inside of people's motivations. And this incredible conspiracy to deceive the American people, to divert American funds for prohibitive things. I sat there and cross-examined everybody from Oliver North right on down to Albert Hakim and everybody in-between. It was a great experience."
Rudman had threatened to resign at the end of his first term, but changed his mind. Now there's no going back, and, in fact, he's come to the point where he thinks the system in the Senate should be scrapped.
"I have for a long time started to feel that maybe we ought to change our system and go to a parliamentary system of government, where you have the leader and the Congress all of the same party," he says. "Obviously if you had a Republican president and a Republican Congress you'd be able to get some things done."
He's already restless for the next step in his life. Rudman may be leaving government, but he hasn't stopped caring. One of his plans is to join former US Sen. Paul Tsongas in grass-roots organizing in all 50 states....
"To bring home to the American people, particularly the young, that their future is at stake, and they'd better get involved in the process, and better come down here and put the same kind of pressure on this Congress that other groups are putting on, to do what's in their interest, which is fiscal sanity. I think that's going to be a very important initiative, and I intend to devote a fair amount of my time to this effort, which for lack of a better word is to try and bring back the American dream. "