Gathering Places


Thursday, June 14, 2001

How infirm is
too infirm to be
a U.S. senator?

Now that furor over the party affiliation of Vermont's Sen. James Jeffords has died down, there is something about the national discussion that has left me a little disoriented.

It was the lack of full analysis of the implications of the condition of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the Republican from South Carolina. It appears that the 98- year-old senator is quite frail; some reports suggest he may even be near death.

If Thurmond had retired when the Senate was evenly divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, then his retirement would have given Senate control to the Democrats since the Democratic governor of South Carolina would have selected Thurmond's replacement.

When the Jeffords' defection from the GOP threw the Senate majority to the Democrats, there was speculation that since there was now a Democratic majority, the "necessity" for Thurmond to remain in the Senate was lessened.

What was never broached was whether it was appropriate or ethical for Thurmond to remain a senator even before Jeffords' defection. Indeed, the substantive issue of the nature and quality of congressional representation has been subsumed into the endless calculation of Senate control.

I realize the consequences of which party controls the Senate. Moreover, if the people of South Carolina don't mind being represented by someone who may not have the capacity to operate in their behalf, that is their call.

But senators have a larger constituency -- a national responsibility to all citizens. In any other context, major concern would be expressed over whether someone who is struggling to keep from becoming comatose should stay on the job.

The Washington Post quoted an anonymous senator who described Thurmond as "barely there." I imagine there would be an outcry if similar circumstances involved a federal judge or cabinet officer.

If it is legitimate to ask whether a person who is morally or legally compromised should be allowed to influence issues of state, is it any less legitimate to ask the same question about someone who may be "barely there"?

It is a delicate and painful situation concerning the elderly to make sure that decision-making is in competent hands. Many of us have faced it with elderly parents in decisions about health care or financial matters. The necessity to face these difficult issues is no less pressing when considering the duties of a U.S. senator.

Indeed, that the Republican Party, which has spent recent years defining itself as a bulwark against irresponsible politicians as reflected in President Clinton's excesses, has not pressed the senator to resign signals the worst kind of partisan cynicism.

If the accounts of Senator Thurmond's health are accurate, then his continued presence in the Senate says a great deal about how Washington and the national media view the political process, and in a very real way, the elderly as well.

Chris Iijima teaches at the Richardson School
of Law at the University of Hawaii.

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