The death of Sen. John H. Chafee, the veteran Republican from Rhode Island, is more than a personal loss to his countless friends, his state and the nation. In a time of rancid partisanship, it is a reminder of a tradition of public service that looked beyond narrow ideological and class lines to an inclusive view of the public interest.
Chafee was an embodiment of the Yankee Protestant commercial aristocracy -- a scion of one of Rhode Island's first families, but a man of such engaging openness that he was cherished by the working-class, Roman Catholic, immigrant and overwhelmingly Democratic constituents who repeatedly chose him as their governor and senator.
The archetype of that class in the previous generation was Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, the red-faced governor and senator who always drew the biggest cheers at Billy Bulger's St. Patrick's Day breakfasts in South Boston.
Once, they were a familiar type in their native Northeast and in Midwestern and Western states, where their families settled in the great westward migration. A few remain -- Bob Taft, the governor of Ohio, is one. But mostly they are either long out of office, like Bill Scranton and Bill Milliken, the former governors of Pennsylvania and Michigan, or dead, like former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and Oregon governor Tom McCall.
They gave a distinctly human and politically progressive cast to the national Republican Party at a time when it was increasingly being seen as the instrument of a more hard-edged conservatism, rooted in the South. When the Senate Republican Conference in 1990 ousted Chafee from its chairmanship, the No. 3 position in the party leadership, on a 22-21 vote in favor of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, it marked a shift of direction that was later confirmed by the elevation of Newt Gingrich of Georgia to the House speakership and Mississippi's Trent Lott to the Senate majority leadership.
By that time, Chafee had a long career of public service behind him. He had spent six years in the state legislature, six years as governor, almost four years as secretary of the Navy and had been in the Senate since 1977. Along with his perfect academic credentials -- Yale University, Harvard Law School -- Chafee also had unusually strong evidence of his personal courage. He was a Marine Corps veteran of Guadalcanal in World War II who was recalled to active duty as commander of a rifle company in Korea.
Such a man is not easily cast aside, and Chafee labored until his death to accomplish national goals in the Senate. His greatest success came in environmental laws protecting the oceans he loved against oil spills and trash dumping. And with Democrat George Mitchell of Maine, he helped achieve the legislative compromises that made possible passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act.
From his years as governor onward, Chafee had a passionate concern for health care. He had seen too often how the working families in Rhode Island's many low-wage industries struggled to pay their medical bills. During the health care debates in 1993-94, he worked tirelessly to fashion a compromise between the Clinton administration proposal, whose bureaucratic excesses he condemned, and the negativism that increasingly pervaded the Republicans' ranks as they recognized the short-term political gains to be achieved by defeating the Clinton scheme.
Privately, he would lament the partisan forces that carried his friend and leader, Bob Dole, away from the camp of those seeking a sensible compromise and into the camp of implacable opponents. When all others had given up hope, Chafee, Mitchell and John Breaux were still looking for a way out.
Just a few months ago, he attempted a similar role in the Senate debate on patients' protection in managed-care health organizations. And once again, his honorable compromise was rejected.
But Chafee never lost his buoyant confidence that people of good will could be brought together to do great things. And it is that spirit that will be missed most of all.
Years ago, when he was attending a National Governors' Association meeting in Cincinnati, Chafee decided that "I can't stand going to another self-congratulatory banquet" with his fellow governors. Someone had tipped him off to a good fish house, "not far out of town," on the Ohio River, so he filled up a car with reporters and headed out.
An hour later, we were still searching for the place. Most politicians by that time would have been chewing out the driver or blaming their staffs for failing to get better directions. But the longer we searched, the more Chafee laughed at our plight, and the more stories he dredged up about similar misadventures in his life.
The trip proved to be more memorable than the meal. The man who made it so -- and brought his special qualities to so many other occasions -- was John Chafee.