Scott Williams: Don’t quit, lawmakers, but know when to turn the page

(Mandel Ngan | AP) In this Oct. 15, 2020, file photo, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Feinstein says she hasn't thought about retiring before her term ends in 2024 amid criticism over her job performance and questions about her age. At 87, Feinstein is the chamber's oldest member.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart’s decision to resign from his congressional seat to care for his beloved wife facing health challenges reminds us of the profound commitment to family and love at the core of Utah’s culture.

It’s also not a common act in the halls of Congress to relinquish power, particularly in today’s landscape of polarized politics. When my former boss Sam Nunn of Georgia retired from the U.S. Senate in 1997, he said most “people leave the Senate one of two ways, either via the Grim Reaper or the Grim Voter. I choose neither.” I wish more members of Congress would take such an approach to public life.

Nunn went on to found with Ted Turner the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a breakthrough organization carrying forward his work and that of the late Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID) to secure the Cold War nuclear arsenals, and to reduce threats created by nuclear and biological weapons and create a more secure, safer world.

The lesson is that great work for the benefit of the country and world can be accomplished after congressional service, and in some regards, can only be achieved once freed from the encumbrances of public office. This is why I feel a bit sad that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has amassed a historic record of public good, knowledge and judgment, appears to remain committed to living her years out in the Senate.

I have always had great affection and admiration for Sen. Feinstein. In 1980 then Mayor Feinstein was enjoying a celebratory dinner with her husband at the same North Beach restaurant in San Francisco where my college a cappella group was performing an alumni gig. We serenaded them to their delight. Years later, when she sat across from me on the subway between the Capitol and Senate offices, I recalled that evening, and was greeted by a very warm smile (and a perplexed look from my boss).

Feinstein had been powered to the mayoral role by tragic forces of gun violence and hate; that experience fortified a deeply personal commitment to public life and integrity when she came to Washington, to our great benefit. One wonders what sort of impact she would have had armed with her formidable intellect and moral drive if she was unleashed from Senate and political duties to bring her core dedication to substance to bear on the domestic threats to our social fabric.

Some would suggest that the power of public office cannot be matched, and that once you yield its advantages and perks, your influence drops like a rock. Yet the example of NTI, where organized dedication to a critical global need of universal concern, not a narrow special interest, demonstrates that seasoned public experience and leadership skills will fuel true power for good.

Certainly Senator Feinstein has every right to follow her own judgment on how she proceeds with her professional and personal life. And all of us with aging loved ones understand the challenges and limitations that come with the long journey of life and want to be supportive of our elders. Yet given that senators are public servants, it’s a fair question to ask when is a good time to hand the baton to a new generation, and then take all the gifts acquired in public office and give back to the nation in new ways.

Nancy Pelosi handed her leadership mantle to a rising leader in the House, and he is soaring. There are plenty of examples of how to move this young nation forward while also ensuring acquired knowledge and experience is not wasted or lost. What it takes is one last act of leadership by one generation to support and advance the next.

Scott Williams

A native of Utah, Scott Williams is a communications consultant in Washington, D.C.