A senator's senator

John H. Chafee: A moderate whose devotion to compromise gave stability to a fractious Senate.

October 28, 1999

JOHN H. CHAFEE'S legacy to Rhode Island and the nation includes cleaner air and better health care.

His greatest gift, though, may be an image of what it should mean to be a U.S. senator.

Mr. Chafee, who died Monday at age 77, was a Republican. But partisanship ranked low in his senatorial priorities. He is hailed as a beacon of service in a time shrouded by corrosive strategies of political advantage.

A flinty, patrician New Englander, he had a sense of humor as well as the prickly resilience to endure defeat and come back.

Rhode Island is a distinctly Democratic state. This helped shape his views on public policy. He broke through in the beginning, he often said, by refusing to "stand around waiting for the crumbs to fall off the [Democratic] table."

His insistence on government solvency hurt him at the polls. In 1968, he failed to win a second term as governor largely on the basis of his call for a state income tax.

But he won the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Democrat John O. Pastore -- and served almost 24 years. He announced last year that he would not seek a fifth term.

President Clinton hailed him Monday as a man who proved that decent, moderate leadership in politics is achievable and honorable. They worked together on environmental and health issues.

Though he could be as intense as any politician, Senator Chafee's ability to undertake great responsibility with laughter and lightness was his great gift, according to his son, Lincoln, the mayor of Warwick, R.I. The younger Chafee, who is campaigning for his father's seat, may be appointed to fill the remainder of the term.

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