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Souter Lets Go, Specter Clings

The juxtaposition of Justice David Souter’s early (as these things go) retirement at age 69 and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s strategic party shift in hopes of winning a sixth term -- he’d be 86 and 11 months when it ends -- has gotten me thinking about the differences between those who crave power and those for whom it seems immaterial.

The man -- or woman -- who chooses to walk away from it all is not a typical Washington type. I don’t share Souter’s antipathy for this city, but it is unavoidably true that the capital is a place where worth, and too often self-worth, is measured by job description. There is something sad and grasping about calling up a lobbyist or think-tanker whose assistant has clearly been instructed to answer the phone, “Senator Smith’s office,” or “Ambassador Jones’s office.” If you have spent your entire life climbing the ranks to the chairmanship, giving it up voluntarily is nearly unimaginable.

So Souter’s decision to chuck it all at a relatively young age -- Justice John Paul Stevens is going strong at 89 -- comes as a shock, especially to those without the luxury of life tenure.

Souter told The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder that he "probably" would have retired no matter who was elected president. “I’m going to be seventy soon. I’ve watched other justices wait until their eighties to retire, and by that time they have nothing left to retire to,” Souter said. “I didn't want that to be me." Sorry, but this sounds a bit odd coming from someone as monastic as Souter. After all, he gets summers off, and he’s not exactly itching to go on a Caribbean cruise.

It would be interesting to get Specter’s reaction to the concept of “nothing left to retire to.” He had surgery for a brain tumor in 1993; it recurred in 1996. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 2005 and it recurred last year. He worked through numerous rounds of chemotherapy, and wrote a book, “Never Give In,” about his battle with cancer. Specter is far from the only senator to cling to the job; after all, when Senate Democrats extricated West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd from chairing the appropriations committee at age 91, he was replaced by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a spry 84. But given Specter’s health history, he may be among the most determined. It is no accident that Specter’s preferred recreation is the controlled combat of the squash court; Souter’s a bracing hike in the White Mountains.

Somewhere between Souter and Specter, it strikes me, there is a happy medium.

By Ruth Marcus  | May 5, 2009; 6:43 PM ET
Categories:  Marcus  | Tags:  Ruth Marcus  
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Comments

Well written blog entry, Ms. Marcus.

It really *is* telling that so many of us here in the DC area measure our self-worth through our jobs, power, and other measures that - eventually - have little meaning.

Thinking about your post, I've come to respect retiring Justice Souter for his sense of life balance and priorities. Perhaps his is the example for more of us to emulate.

My dos centavos.

Posted by: Hawaiiexpat | May 6, 2009 12:37 AM | Report abuse

I don't see much of an issue here.

In Souter's case, he's served almost 20 years on the Supreme Court -- the appointment came at the end of a long career in law. I applaud his decision to do whatever he wants in his remaining years. A person never knows when his or her number will be called -- for some, the desire is to work until the bitter end -- for others the chance to step away and "get the house in order" before-hand is the priority. Some can do both at once.

Who is a better judge other than the individual?

In the case of the Senators, ultimately the "happy medium" exists between the wishes of the voters and those of the Congressional-lifer.

If the Congressional-lifer outlives his or her usefulness in the Congress, the electorate will usually apply the appropriate remedy.

Posted by: JPRS | May 6, 2009 1:32 AM | Report abuse

There are numerous 'mystical teachings,' that truly powerful individuals are not offended by answering the question, 'who are you, by responding 'I'm nobody, or I'm no one.'

The Dalai Lama would be such an example. He recognizes that his 'power[s]' are all God given, and as such, he ALONE [without God] is truly no one -- and his ego does not require bragging.

I must admit, it is much easier to respond to the question of 'who are you' with the response, 'I'm nobody,' AFTER first having been 'somebody.'

But how many fail even that test of inflated ego ???

If you really are somebody, others will likely pick that up fairly quickly, regardless of how you identify yourself.

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | May 6, 2009 3:06 AM | Report abuse

Just because you like it quiet doesn't mean you don't deserve a happy retirement.

I'm proud of Souter for holding on until that nitwit was out of office.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 6, 2009 6:18 AM | Report abuse

JPRS said what must be said. I can only add this comment.

Ms. Marcus, your characterization of Justice Souter as "monastic" was intended to be derogatory. He was always the most gentlemanly of judges, a man who knew himself well, who was the master of his unspoken word, and who had to be talked out of withdrawing his name from nomination by Warren Rudman. That Thoreau would have called Souter self-sufficient while you call him monastic is not merely a metric of difference of 150 years in America. It is the tape of the distance from Washington, D. C. to rural New England, as well.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 6, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I second both comments from margaretmyers. Well said.

I can believe that Justice Souter would have retired no matter who was elected president. Just as long as his replacement wasn't named by the beneficiary of Bush v. Gore.

Posted by: mikeinmidland | May 6, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I, too, agree that the "monastic" comment was unwarranted and was probably meant to be a slight dig at Souter's bachelor status.

In any event, as for some happy medium between Souter and Specter, I vote that no medium is necessary. To me, Souter has it correct -- 69 is way more appropriate a retirement age than 79. With Specter, Byrd and Stevens, you have individuals whose prime left them many, many years ago and who, through stubbornness or sheer egomania, refuse to relinquish power to a younger generation.

Personally, I think Congressmen, Senators and Supreme Court justices should be subject to some type of term limit, just as the President is.

Posted by: 1986JD | May 6, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Is it any big surprise? One is a reasonable man and a jurist. The other is an unprincipled, power-hungry politician.

Posted by: ttj1 | May 6, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Really nice contrast between 2 powerful Washingtonians; 1 a distinguished gentleman, the other a craven politician.

Posted by: adamnescot1 | May 6, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

From the Baltimore Sun (5/6/2009)

The last time Qonta Waddell's mother saw him alive, the slightly built 24-year-old was hogtied and screaming for his life as he was carried away by two men with handguns.

City police have charged Sherman Anderson, 32, in connection with the kidnapping and murder of Waddell, who was found shot to death in a West Baltimore alley four miles from his mother's house. Anderson has been arrested nearly 40 times, never serving significant jail time, and has beaten charges of attempted first-degree murder three times.

Posted by: hclark1 | May 6, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

It seems you contradicted yourself a bit in your analysis. First you admire Souter despite his "monastic" lifestyle, then paint him as the opposite extreme of Specter, who is a spectacle. I greatly admire him for being an individual and for following his own idea of what a life ought to be. Everyone doesn't itch to lay on a beach. Washington, my hometown, will be less honorable when David Souter departs. and no one will be answering the phone Justice Souter or otherwise; he'll be off on a hike in his beloved mountains hopefully.

Posted by: innocentia74 | May 6, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

I can understand Justice Souter wanting to retire while he can still stand. Although he would never say so, if I were in his shoes I would find it very difficult to sit on the bench with the likes of Antonin Scalia (arrogant, activist, elitist, biased), Clarence Thomas (unproductive, disinterested, bored, and just taking home a paycheck), and Alito (a deer in headlights that will never find its way to erudition or circumspection)and endure their sometimes muddled and circular arguments and incomprehensible lines of questioning. These are two very different men motivated by their own dreams and aspirations thus they approach their lives (and livelihoods)in disparate ways.

Posted by: politico5 | May 6, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

We need more public servants such as Justice Souter. I am retired, and it is great. Having a summer vacation isn't really living an unencumbered life. A year or so after retirement the body and mind relaxes, and all the minor aches and pains disappear, obviously having been induced by stress. No one is indispensible and beyond being replaced. It is better to bow out gracefully than being forced out; let the young have their chance. Working until one drops just shows that one isn’t very creative.

Posted by: csintala79 | May 6, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Count me in among those who thing Ms. Marcus has it wrong about Justice Souter.

The man is a old-style Yankee who values the life of the mind, as evidenced by a home filled with thousands of books and election to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has spent his career in public service and now wants to return to his home, his books, and New England. That's not being "monastic" -- just true to who he his.

The only law school in New Hampshire is about 15 miles or so from his hometown -- I have no doubt that the dean would be thrilled to have him teach a seminar if asked. As a retired justice, he can chose to hear cases at the Federal Courthouse in Concord or at the First Circuit in Boston. Health allowing, he will have many years where he can teach, write, hike, and think at his own pace--and live in a truly beautiful place to boot. That's a retirement that many intellectually-oriented lawyers would envy.

Posted by: SGfromMudville | May 7, 2009 3:14 AM | Report abuse

The sun will rise and life will go on as usual after Souter steps down.
Why is it that these people in power believe that the world will come crashing down if they're not there to care for things? Has there been a politician in recent memory who was so indispensable to this country that his or her absence would create a void that couldn't be filled.
At least Souter will be able to enjoy civilian life while he's still mentally firm.

Posted by: weaverlaw1 | May 8, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

In both their ascendency, and descendency, Spector and Souter are actually very much the same... Both have watched as their cherished Party have turned authoritarian, exclusionary, corrupt,and run by arrogant radio hacks. I suspect others will follow. And their hapless followers will begin to melt away as well. The Right's conversations revolve soley around their power, their control, their right, their way, their phoney tea parties... Souter and Spector have watched 25 years of Party descending deeper into a black hole. They witness their once honorable party disintegrating in front of their very eyes. The only thing that remains in the sting of the Right's collective toxic tail. For Spector and Souter it's not about power, arrogance, or whatever twisted logic the Right decides to conjur up that day and blather across America. It is about these two brave servants, in their own way, taking the first step towards sounding an alarm that their Party has a sickness that will not easily be cured.

Posted by: neverboringguy | May 9, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

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