Former Senator Paul Sarbanes, one of the last of an extinct species, a true giant of the Senate, died Sunday at 87. The Maryland Democrat retired in 2006 after 30 years in the Senate and six in the House of Representatives.
He was probably the finest mind of his time in the Senate. Others shone brighter in the public eye, but his superb intellect, integrity, tenacity and work ethic set him above.
When critics criticized his low-key approach by calling him the “stealth senator,” he took it as a compliment. He once told the Baltimore Sun, “If you let somebody else take the credit, you can get the result,” he said.
That quality could be frustrating for friends and supporters. His reluctance to get out front on issues before fully studying them frustrated friends and allies and let others less qualified move out to grab the spotlight and the credit.
I am proud to have known him personally and that he was my senator for 30 years.
I first met him in the early 1970s when he was in the House and partnered with my boss, Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal, in leading opposition to the Greek junta and for return of democracy to its birthplace. It was during that time that as a member of the Judiciary Committee he drafted the articles of impeachment against President Nixon.
I got to know him better during my years at legislative director at AIPAC when he was a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He was a true friend of Israel and the Jewish community for all the right reasons. He understood and articulated the politics and policy, making him particularly effective. His intellect, integrity and modesty won him the respect of colleagues and staff on both sides of the aisle.
Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state and a SFRC in those days, this week called Sarbanes “A fierce intelligence married to deep principle — and the best questioner on the committee.”
Like his colleague from Delaware, Biden, Sarbanes preferred going home to his family in Baltimore after work, avoiding the Washington social circuit and receptions.
I can’t think of anyone in Senate today who approaches his stature.