A blue card to Rudman’s farewell

I put on a suit and tie for Warren Rudman’s memorial service, Jan. 25, 2013, but my greater sense of disconnect was wearing leather shoes with thin socks for the first time since, maybe, Columbus Day. My feet were cold and my heels clacked as I walked the couple of blocks to the Warren B. Rudman Federal Courthouse, which stands, well, majestic, a courtroom reached by twin staircases that would make a cotillion of debutantes drool. This temple of secular law outshone the office building next door, a rectangular glass and concrete tool box named for James C. Cleveland.

Rudman, who found the tax money to build this temple to the law as a distinguished United States senator, died Nov. 19. The Nashua resident was 82. His contributions as a lawyer and transformational attorney general were honored April 21 at the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy, part of the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord.

I had to show my driver’s license when I walked in to the courtroom, which entitled me to a blue card admitting me to the inner sanctum of mourners instead of the yellow card given to inhabitants of the press section. I took a trip back to the 1970s, all of us grown older and heavier – save that ex-congressman who’s had heart trouble and is startlingly thin. The marshals failed to recognize Dorothy Peterson, widow of the governor who set Rudman off on his political career. Gov. Walter Peterson’s former bodyguard, who retired as executive major of the State Police, had to vouch for her.

For the old friends and allies, time slowed down as a parade of politicians isolated attributes clipped out of Rudman’s biography to justify their political stances. Gov. Maggie Hassan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, both Democrats, praised bipartisanship. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, lauded fiscal responsibility. Former Gov. John H. Lynch recounted with some charm how Rudman discovered that the desk and cabinet in the Corner Office had been built by his family’s Old Colony Furniture factory. Peter Thomson, son of Mel, came up with the best metaphor to describe Rudman and Governor Thomson’s rivalry in the 1970s: two bulls fenced into the same winter pasture.  Peter recounted how Senator Rudman bullied some Washington bureaucrat into saving Peter’s sinecure, a yarn revealing much about a family that loves to denounce big government.  Former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, wearing a beard that makes him look like a turn of the 20th century politician who’s been bought and paid for by the railroad, gave perhaps the most overtly political speech, denouncing government deficits.

The afternoon got better as the lawyers who had actually worked with and for Rudman spoke. Perhaps Rudman’s most lasting New Hampshire legacy was the bright, capable lawyers he hired; lawyers who for decades enhanced Concord’s legal community, as recorded in Crosscurrents of Change: Concord, N.H., in the 20th Century. Tom Rath reminded us that the state has already earned millions from settlements in an oil pollution suit brought by the environmental protection bureau Rudman created.  Its first head, Greg Smith, was in the room. So was Bill Glahn, who had helped create the Consumer Protection Bureau, which has won millions for consumers who’ve been cheated by state and national companies. Rath didn’t mention Rudman’s aggressive but informal enforcement of the Right-to-Know Law, one of the nation’s first. Imagine some puckerbrush selectman trying to cut a backroom deal with his cousin the developer. The phone rings and there’s Warren, in full bluster, demanding that the decision be made in a public meeting with a full and complete record. Afterwards Rudman called up the reporter and bragged about it.

Rath gave a poignant remembrance of Rudman the friend who turned up as Rath paced a hospital floor, sweating out the birth of his twins. Rudman peppered Rath with questions about issues and cases, distracting the expectant father until the doctor came out to report the successful birth. I can’t remember Tom giving a better speech. He had lost one of his best friends.

Retired Justice David Souter always has the best Rudman stories, and he told the one about the beginning of the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, when an angry bunch of long-haul truckers surrounded the State House as a protest, and the state government worried about what would happen in case of fire. Rudman had been at home, in pain because a chip of shrapnel from Korean War combat had lodged, painfully, by a nerve in his neck. Rudman got a ride to Concord, head and neck immobilized by a cervical collar. The AG stared out the window a long time, then, as the truck drivers gathered for their press conference, he ditched the collar, grabbed Souter, and strode up to the lectern. I have the State Police and the National Guard ready with big earth-moving equipment, he trumpeted, and if you don’t get those trucks out of here, now, I’m going to dump them all into the Merrimack River! Souter knew of no troops, no bulldozers. Rudman’s challenge was enough to make the drivers fire up their rigs and leave.

One should always listen to David Souter carefully, even when he’s telling a story about Warren’s successful bluff. Bulls in the pasture Rudman and Thomson may have been, but they knew they had to govern the state, not strike extreme poses for short-term political gain. As Peter Thomson watched from the audience, Souter said that in the AG’s office, “We were in a position to learn that you don’t solve most public problems by shouting at the other guy, ‘I win, you lose.’ We were in a position to understand that equally principled people could disagree, and strong principled people could have the courage to compromise for the sake of getting public business done and actually advancing a broad public interest. We couldn’t help but learn that in public life, Public Enemy No. 1 was the ideologue. And we couldn’t fail to understand that Warren Rudman followed Theodore Roosevelt in believing that the most powerful politics is the politics of decency.”

  • John Milne

New Hampshire Public Television recorded the memorial service; it’s available here.

The Concord Monitor reported on the April 22 conference opening the Rudman Center at UNH Law