Politicians to be proud of

One night shortly before the presidential inauguration, when I couldn't fall asleep, instead of counting sheep, I decided to think through the list of presidents in my lifetime and consider their strengths and weaknesses. There were 13, to be exact, since I was born shortly before FDR died.

As it turned out, President Barack Obama was the only president whose immediate family and whose cabinet had absolutely no scandals in office. No Iran Contra, no Watergate, no mistresses or other sex scandals, no one resigning in disgrace, and no president using his influence to get his daughter major singing engagements.


Indeed, in 1950, when the Washington Post music critic panned Margaret Truman's performance, President Harry Truman wrote to him: "Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below." Today, people think President Donald Trump is blunt!

Having grown up in New Jersey, I became used to corrupt politicians.


Less than a year after I moved to Baltimore, I interviewed, for Hopkins Magazine, soon-to-be U.S. Attorney General Ben Civiletti. After the interview, when he walked me to my car, Ben commented on my New Jersey license plates. I explained that before I moved to Baltimore, I was in graduate school in Massachusetts and my parents' congressman, Frank Thompson, known to us as Thompy, told me to keep the New Jersey plates so I could vote for him on an absentee ballot.

Ben's expression was blank. "Don't you know him?" I asked, adding, "He was the author of the bill that established the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington." Ben still looked blank.

But unbeknownst to me at that time, Ben, as head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, was investigating Thompy for bribery and conspiracy. The scandal was referred to as Abscam, since Federal agents, posing as rich Arab sheiks, were able to videotape the congressman, who ended up serving two years of a three-year prison sentence.

Then there was my senator, Harrison "Pete" Williams. Williams' wife had once been one of my dad's high school students, which was how we knew him. Williams, too, was convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal, and his sentence marked the first time in 80 years that a senator went to prison. Like Thompson, Williams served two years of a three-year sentence.

Other than the fact that when I arrived in Maryland in 1977, the governor (Marvin Mandel) was in prison, I have, during the nearly 40 years that I have lived here, been extremely proud of our senators and I would hope all Maryland residents would be as well.

First, there was Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias. A liberal Republican (sadly, a dying breed), Mathias played major roles in advocating for civil rights, ending the Vietnam War and preserving the Chesapeake Bay. Between serving in the House and the Senate, he remained in government 26 years — with absolutely no scandals. Although I never got to meet him, I have heard only good things about him.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes (1977-2007) was re-elected four times, always by an overwhelming majority. He was brilliant. In 2006, Washingtonian Magazine listed Paul, along with Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, and Bill Frist, a Tennesee Republican, as the "brainiest" senators. His signature achievement was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, to protect investors.

Paul was humble and fair and, with Christine, his linguistics professor wife, raised three wonderful children, all involved in public service. His son John is a Maryland Congressman and daughter Janet was instrumental in getting the Princeton University dining clubs to accept women.


Paul's successor, Sen. Ben Cardin, formerly, a long-time congressman like Mr. Sarbanes, has an excellent reputation and was most supportive of President Obama's agenda. He is for affordable health care, preserving the environment and raising taxes on higher income earners.

And then there is Barbara Mikulski, the first female Democrat to be elected senator in her own right. After 30 years in the Senate, where she would eventually head the Appropriations Committee, she was known for strongly advocating for women and children, for campaign finance reform, for closing tax loopholes and for getting many government contracts for Maryland. Ms. Mikulski has recently retired.

She hosted monthly dinners for female senators of both parties and was the longest serving female member of Congress. She never forgot her humble roots and never stopped doing for others.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen succeeds Ms. Mikulski, and as a former U.S. representative, he, too, has an excellent reputation.

Because the world looks to the United States and its leaders, it is extremely important that we set a positive example — morally, ethically, socially and intellectually. Maryland's senators certainly have done that.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is