The senator who made stealth a virtue

Sarbanes: He's cautious and sometimes invisible, but Republicans can't beat him.

September 17, 2000

HOW DOES HE do it? Paul S. Sarbanes isn't Hollywood's image of a United States senator. He lacks the looks and the voice. He abhors the spotlight.

He's not a backslapper, yet this Rhodes scholar fits in easily with the pols at Baltimore's Stonewall Democratic Club.

He has an aversion to publicity-seeking, but as re-election time nears every six years, Mr. Sarbanes seems to be all over the state, at bull roasts, fairs, ribbon-cuttings, community events.

And he has defeated all comers. For 34 years.

He's one of the Senate's most gifted and hardest workers. But he displays his persuasive brilliance behind the scenes -- at party caucuses, in the cloakroom, even on Capitol Hill's subway linking office buildings with the Rotunda -- not on the Senate floor.

He's at his best in conference committees, where persuading colleagues to change a few words in a bill, or add an amendment, can make all the difference. Yet as one observer noted, "You don't see his fingerprints on the bill."

Detractors used to call Paul Sarbanes the "stealth senator."

But like the Stealth bomber, Mr. Sarbanes has a knack for surprising the enemy with successful strikes from out of the blue.

A more accurate description of Mr. Sarbanes today, at age 67, would be the "silver fox." His wavy hair long ago turned gray; now it's a grayish white. Over the years, he has also learned how to get things done in Congress -- quietly but with shrewd skillfulness.

Never underestimate his persistence, his mastery of the facts, or his understanding of what it takes to win -- especially on Election Day.

Every time a Republican feels Mr. Sarbanes can be beaten, that opponent has been blown to smithereens: Bill Brock lost by 19 percentage points; Alan Keyes lost by 24; Larry Hogan by 26; and incumbent J. Glenn Beall Jr. by 18.

He has got the Midas touch with voters. Mr. Sarbanes, having served two terms in the House of Delegates from Baltimore, first ran for Congress in 1970 as an anti-war, anti-machine reformer. As usual, his timing was perfect.

He whipped a powerful 26-year incumbent, Rep. George H. Fallon, who chaired the Public Works Committee. Two years later, despite running in a redrawn district, his political acumen forced another 26-year Capitol Hill lion and committee chairman, Edward A. Garmatz, into retirement.

He has been unstoppable ever since.

Marylanders seem to embrace him and his voting record, which is one of the most liberal in the Senate. Americans for Democratic Action, on the far left, give him a 96 percent lifetime rating. The American Conservative Union, on the far right, gives him a 5 percent rating.

Mr. Sarbanes is an old-style Roosevelt liberal -- one of the few left -- and proud of it. He remembers what the New Deal meant to his Greek-immigrant parents who settled in Salisbury and started a restaurant. In many ways, he's still that polite, small-town boy who excelled in classrooms and on the athletic fields and got himself an Ivy League education.

At public functions, what comes across is his sincerity and concern for people. He's a good listener who gets animated when talking about helping someone find a job.

He's an effective speaker, too. At a recent event at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Mr. Sarbanes waited patiently while the governor, lieutenant governor and state transportation secretary delivered formal speeches. When his turn came, Mr. Sarbanes put aside his prepared remarks -- as he often does -- and spoke directly to those in front of him about how much the airport means to Maryland's people.

He was relaxed and informal, using his hands to orchestrate his points. Ever the good politician, he wove in some of the things he'd done for the airport, such as persuading the military's Air Mobility Command to choose BWI for its overseas flights.

It was a typically low-key but effective Sarbanes effort. Those in the audience were drawn into the conversation. They felt included.

But it's doubtful many of them could tick off a list of Sarbanes achievements. He's not identified as a national figure for a specific cause, such as education or national defense. He's been involved in a handful of high-profile issues, but usually behind the scenes or on the fringes.

Mr. Sarbanes had a prominent role -- though not as a leader -- in the Watergate impeachment votes against President Richard Nixon in the House Judiciary Committee.

He carried the ball for the Carter administration in its fight to win Senate approval of the Panama Canal treaties.

He was part of the congressional inquiry into the Reagan administration's Iran-contra cover-up.

More recently, he partnered with Republican Sen. Connie Mack of Florida to overhaul the federal public housing law. He has regularly held up approval of ambassadors who were picked because they made big campaign contributions. He's become a strong advocate of mass transit programs.

And he's been a constant pest whenever Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testifies.

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