The recent news of the passing of Sen. Paul Sarbanes at the age of 87 should make all Marylanders take pause and pay their respects. Sarbanes was the longest-serving senator in Maryland history until Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski eclipsed him by a day when she retired in January of 2017.
Sarbanes — who served in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977, and the Senate from 1977 to 2007 — was the son of Greek immigrants who operated a restaurant in Salisbury. He was born and raised in Salisbury, attended Princeton and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. Afterward, he graduated from Harvard Law School and clerked for federal Judge Morris A. Soper before entering private practice in Baltimore.
Not too shabby for a nice Greek boy from the Eastern Shore.
It goes without saying that Sarbanes had a long and distinguished career as a lawmaker, helping to craft landmark anti-fraud legislation and drafting the first article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
It should also be noted that Sarbanes was known for his low-key, cerebral, unflashy style which earned him the nickname of “the Stealth Senator” by his Republican rivals (a nickname he embraced, noting that stealth weaponry is a vital component to the U.S. military defense complex).
But on a personal note, I remember one time when the good senator was not so low-key, stealthy or understated. And it was a teachable moment for me.
Back in 1988, I was a young reporter assigned to cover Sarbanes headquarters on Election Night during his Senate race against GOP opponent Alan Keyes. As expected, Sarbanes, the popular incumbent in a blue state, won easily, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote.
The victory celebration was held in the lavish ballroom of a downtown hotel, packed with jubilant supporters and media types, brimming with food and loud music.
At some point after the announcement was officially made that Sarbanes emerged victorious, I asked one of his aides if I could possibly interview the senator for a few minutes. Not long after, Sarbanes appeared, smiling, tan and pleasant while oozing all of the self-confidence and poise you’d expect from a seasoned legislator.
Nervously, I started reeling off some of the rote questions my editor and I prepared in advance if I actually snagged an interview with Sarbanes that night. These were mostly softball questions: how does it feel to be reelected again by the citizens of Maryland, what do you think put you over the top, what are your immediate plans to tackle in the Senate, etc.
Sarbanes answered my questions graciously and patiently, like a real pro. But then at one point, I asked him a question that (as my memory has it) my editor threw in there for good measure: will you continue your strong support for the state of Israel over the next six years?
I asked the question without any hesitation or apprehension, and looked down at my yellow notepad and pen to scribble the response. But I heard only silence. Sarbanes paused for what seemed like an eternity, and suddenly the tone in his voice was quite different.
“Young man,” he said to me, as if I was being taken out to the woodshed, “how dare you ask me that kind of question? How dare you? Will I continue to support the state of Israel? Is that even a question?”
I immediately realized I was in deep trouble and had inadvertently insulted a United States senator, and tried to apologize and backtrack, moving on to another question. But Sarbanes — who I later learned was the recipient of the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award from the Baltimore Zionist District — was having absolutely none of it.
“What would possess you to even ask me such a question?” he raged, as some nearby revelers attempted to eavesdrop over the din. “My record of support for the state of Israel and its defense speaks for itself, and the fact that you would even ask me that question is beyond my comprehension.”
He kept on talking about his impeccable record of support for the Jewish state for a while until finally waving his hands in the air and disappearing into the crowd, to my great relief. I wiped my brow, grabbed a soda before slinking off into the night, replaying the whole exchange in my mind over and over on the long ride home.
Over the passage of time when occasionally reliving that horrible, soul-crunching moment, I’ve come to realize that Sarbanes was absolutely right and did me a favor. I hadn’t really done my homework and didn’t ask him an intelligent question in a manner respectful to someone whose record was out there in the open for all to see. I was just reading off random questions aimlessly, without much thought or care.
Sarbanes didn’t have to explain himself to me or anyone else. He didn’t have to get on a soapbox and start singing “Hatikvah” or shout about why his support for Israel was unassailable and should not be subjected to inane queries.
It was a lesson well-learned. A few years ago at a JCC event, I ran into the senator’s son, Rep. John Sarbanes, and told him that quirky, fleeting anecdote about his dad. He didn’t say too much but simply smiled and summoned the chuckle of a son who knew his brilliant father all too well and his tendency not to suffer fools.
May the memory of Sen. Paul Sarbanes always be a blessing for all of us who were fortunate enough to benefit from his efforts for the people of Maryland and the state of Israel over the years.