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.
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