The long goodbye


On the otherwise unremarkable occasion last month when Paul S. Sarbanes cast his 11,000th Senate vote, his colleagues interrupted their debate to burst into the sort of florid testimonials that typically come when a lawmaker is concluding the final weeks in office.

Senators were just hitting their effusive stride - Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia may have claimed top honors by comparing Mr. Sarbanes to the classical Greek thinker Demosthenes - when the Marylander delicately called a halt to it. "I'm still here until the 3rd of January 2007," he reminded them.

Politicians normally wallow in compliments, but Mr. Sarbanes, 73, is being feted so frequently these days he worries about being considered in the past tense.

"It's not just looking back," he said in an interview of this victory-lap year capping four decades in public office. "We're trying to finish some things. ... The first priority is doing the job effectively."

Since he announced his retirement in March 2005, the senator - often accompanied by his wife, Christine - has been reluctantly recruited for a nonstop farewell tour, sometimes attending four or more events a week in his honor. During stints in the state legislature and the U.S. House as well as the Senate, Mr. Sarbanes has built a record that seemingly every admiring group wants to recognize.

"It's like being eulogized every night," observed Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican also retiring after a lengthy career.

The plaques, plates, cups, statues and other awards Mr. Sarbanes is collecting along the way are rapidly filling a wall in his office that staffers have dubbed the "shrine."

Just in recent weeks, Mr. Sarbanes has received lifetime achievement awards from the International Association of Firefighters, grateful for financial support, and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which appreciates his fight against predatory lending. The Consumer Federation of America named him a Lifetime Consumer Hero for his portfolio of work on the Senate Banking Committee.

America Impact, a political action committee that promotes global cooperation, toasted Mr. Sarbanes as a "giant of the Senate" for his internationalist approach to foreign relations, and the Maryland Historical Society expressed its appreciation for his help securing federal funds by naming him Marylander of the Year. He's booked for at least four back-to-back college commencements.

Never a self-promoter, Mr. Sarbanes typically lets accolades wash by, occasionally comparing his distinction as Maryland's longest-serving senator to Oriole Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games feat.

"Every day you show up, you set a new record," he said.

If pressed, he will say he regards the most significant event of his career to be the role he played as a junior congressman in 1974, when he was chosen by his Democratic colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee to offer the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.

Ranking second is a recent legislative landmark, scored in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal of 2002, when he took the lead on what has been called the most sweeping reform of financial regulations since the New Deal: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Between those bookend events have come a smorgasbord of other achievements now being recalled almost daily.

At a press conference last week called to announced Mr. Sarbanes' bid to designate John Smith's exploratory route up the Chesapeake Bay a national historic trail in time for next year's 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Will Baker, couldn't resist ad-libbing a tribute.

Senator Sarbanes has been involved in every such effort to promote and protect the bay for the past 30 years, Mr. Baker said, making a contribution that has been "absolutely outstanding."

"I'm worried the bay may crumble without him," Mr. Baker said.

Perhaps. But he's not near ready to quit yet.

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