The Senate boasts plenty of bright minds, sterling political records and up-by-the-bootstraps stories. Few members, however, can top Paul S. Sarbanes, who announced yesterday he will retire in January 2007 after three decades in the Senate.
The son of Greek immigrants who never got past the sixth grade, Sarbanes received degrees from Princeton University and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and from Harvard Law School. Entering politics, he never lost an election and, astonishingly, defeated two House incumbents, a sitting senator and two former senators.
"I'm not always out there blowing my own trumpet," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes says. "You can get a lot done if you let others take some, maybe all, of the credit."
(Chris Kleponis -- Bloomberg News)
Despite all that, the Maryland Democrat never built a national reputation, and even many in his home state seem to know little if anything about him. In a chamber packed with publicity hounds, Sarbanes appears almost averse to cameras and attention. In a state known for lively (and sometimes corrupt) politics, he is a straight arrow who largely disappears for the six years between each election, letting scrappier politicians hash things out in Annapolis, Baltimore and elsewhere while he studiously tends to his senatorial duties.
To his admirers, Sarbanes is the ideal legislative workhorse, content to let his show-horse colleagues grab the glory while he doggedly pursues his liberal agenda: stronger protections for low-income borrowers, solid federal oversight of banks and corporations, a reliable safety net for the poor. His career's highlights are bracketed by his House Judiciary Committee role in sponsoring articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, and his major hand in shaping legislation to regulate the accounting industry in 2002 after the Enron scandals.
"He's the same. He never changed," said an appreciative Nick Schloeder, 74, longtime Maryland Democratic operative, Sarbanes staff member and former campaign manager. "He gets up, goes to work, comes home. That is who and what he is."
"He never embarrassed us," he added. "In a long career, he never came close to embarrassing us. This is what you want in a public official."
Those less enamored of Sarbanes -- his style is too gentle to draw truly rabid critics -- say he could have done more, been more, if he had coupled his brains and work ethic with a heftier appetite for publicity and big gestures. Former Senate colleagues such as George J. Mitchell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were no more brilliant than Sarbanes, this argument goes, but they achieved more because they plunged more lustily into the political games, television appearances and occasional showmanship that help animate Congress.
A perceptive column in the Baltimore Sun 21 years ago -- headlined "The Puzzle of Paul" -- described Sarbanes as having "an odd lack of sparkle for one so brilliant," and the observation seems apt today.
"It's fair to say he's not been a publicity hound, which is what distinguishes him from many of his colleagues," Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said yesterday. "He's known as being cerebral and liberal. He has been deeply involved in economic and financial issues."
Mann differs with those who say Sarbanes could have achieved more if he had been brasher and more forceful. "I don't think it's self-evident that is true," he said. "God knows the Congress needs some people who don't gravitate immediately to the cameras" and who dig deeply into unsexy issues. Sarbanes has played that role perfectly, he said.
Time and again, Maryland Republicans called Sarbanes a "stealth senator" who ignored his constituents except at election time. Sarbanes -- his voice always low and slow -- dismissed such talk with weary shrugs. In his 1994 campaign, he said: "I am a different sort of politician. I'm not always out there blowing my own trumpet. . . . You can get a lot done if you let others take some, maybe all, of the credit."
His GOP challenger that year, former Tennessee senator William E. Brock III, belittled Sarbanes's Senate record, saying he "hasn't introduced a single successful bill on education or crime or tax reduction or job creation or any other matter of substance." Sarbanes went on to beat Brock by a comfortable 18 percentage points, his narrowest margin ever.
Sarbanes made his biggest mark on the Senate banking committee. The panel's ranking Democrat since 1995, he was chairman for the 19 months that Democrats controlled the Senate, starting in June 2001.
In 2002, he and Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) spearheaded the legislation, now known as Sarbanes-Oxley, that was a response to accounting misdeeds at Enron and elsewhere. The law created a federal accounting oversight board, made it easier to prosecute executives who destroy documents or knowingly file false financial reports, and added a felony for securities fraud, punishable by 25 years in prison.
Perhaps the senator's finest hour came June 18, 2002. Committee Republicans, led by Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.), were seemingly poised to mount a strong challenge to Sarbanes's plans, which some business groups opposed. To Gramm's surprise, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) announced at a gathering: "I spent a lot of time last night with Senator Sarbanes. I'm going to vote for the bill."
A few other Republicans followed suit, and Gramm's resistance fell victim to Sarbanes's quiet, just-the-facts style of networking.
Edward L. Yingling, incoming president of the American Bankers Association, said he didn't always agree with Sarbanes but always admired his preparation and steadfastness. "Anytime you dealt with an issue with Senator Sarbanes," Yingling said yesterday, "you'd better have an argument as to why it was good for consumers. That was the way he approached everything. . . . He would have very strong arguments for his side."
Former Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) sides with those who say Sarbanes's low-key style is just what the Senate needs. "He's had a remarkable career," Daschle said. "He's one of the most thoughtful people we have on the Hill."