On June 19, 1981 a vigorously healthy Justice Potter Stewart resigned from the Supreme Court at the age of 66. “I've always been a firm believer in the principle that it’s better to go too soon than to stay too long. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to have an opportunity to spend more time with my wife, Andy, and hopefully, with our children and grandchildren while I was still relatively young and healthy,” Stewart said. Stewart died suddenly only four years later, at age 70, so he and his family must have been especially grateful for those last years.
Stewart’s resignation made news not only because it opened a vacancy on the Court, but as well because it is so rare to see a man give up power with the certainty that there are more important things in his life—family, to begin with. More typical was a case I saw close up in the 1980s (as a staffer for Senator Daniel P. Moynihan and then a State Department official in the Reagan administration), that of Senator Jacob Javits of New York. At age 76 in 1980 and already suffering from ALS, he would not retire. He insisted on running again, only to lose the primary to Alphonse D’Amato, who became New York’s next senator. It seemed that being a senator was all there was to Javits’s life. After his defeat he would still not go home, if indeed he had a home any longer in New York. He prevailed upon President Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz to give him some kind of advisory position at State, where I had occasion to brief the pathetic figure: in a wheel chair, using oxygen tubes, awake and asleep on and off from one minute the next. What an end to a long public career.
I had all this in mind watching Richard Lugar last night. He is 80, and was seeking yet another term that would carry him to age 86 in the Senate. Were there no children or grandchildren, I wondered, who deserved Lugar’s time as Potter Stewart’s deserved his? Did Lugar not wonder if by age 86 he would be too old or sick to serve, ending up like Javits? Was there no home to return to in Indiana? It seems not, and that of course became a central issue in the campaign: Lugar's only residence for years now has apparently been in Washington.
Lugar’s concession speech was cold and aggressive: “If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it. This is not conducive to problem solving and governance.”
Such words, and the insistence on staying in the Senate in his 80s and presumably until his death, suggest that Lugar has truly fallen ill with the worst diseases of Washington: The belief that he is indispensable, the conviction that his own approach is the only decent political formula, and, worst of all, the sad conclusion that only public life offers any comfort, pride, and solace. Those who have long admired the senator must wish him a better end than that.