08/07/2013 08:37 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Public Citizens in Our Towns


When I read This Town, Mark Leibovich's riveting new best seller about political life in our nation's capital, I couldn't help but remember my friend, Tom Eagleton.

For one of the jarring messages of Leibovich's book comes from his account of how former senators and representatives routinely become permanent residents of D.C., making the move from congressmen to lobbyists, from the people's representatives to those of the special interests, often at compensation packages of seven or even eight figures.

Sometimes these moves present actual conflicts of interests, other times simply apparent ones, but it all looks rather unseemly and contributes to the dysfunction of our political system and the public's cynicism about it.

I thought of Tom Eagleton because he took an entirely different path from the norm Leibovich portrays upon retiring from the Senate in 1987. Rather than head for K Street, Eagleton and his wife, Barbara, went home where he spent the last 20 years of his life as one of St. Louis's and Missouri's leading public citizens.

Going home surely cost Eagleton a bundle. His friend, Mark Abels, put it well in his eulogy at Eagleton's Memorial Service in March, 2007:

Let's be crass for a moment. What is the market value in Washington of a fifty-seven year-old man who has just finished three terms in the Senate, retired undefeated, and carries with him the love and respect of almost every member of that institution? Some small countries are not worth that much.

From Leibovich's book, it sounds like Eagleton could have pulled multiple millions had he gone the conventional route.

But for a public servant like Eagleton, becoming a public citizen was the more natural path. He practiced law in St. Louis (but didn't lobby), he wrote a newspaper column and did television commentaries, and he taught, at Washington University and Saint Louis University School of Law. He was a civic leader. He helped bring the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis, helped promising Democrats get established in politics, and spoke out on public issues, including as a leader of an effort to protect embryonic stem cell research. Barbara Eagleton organized the Women's Democratic Forum and has served on various cultural boards. They were active in their community. They did good.

Eagleton wasn't, of course, the first D.C. luminary to return home. In fact, he followed the example of his good friend, Walter Mondale, who had taken a similar course a few years earlier. Mondale returned to Minneapolis where he has practiced law, taught, established the Mondale Policy Forum at the University of Minnesota, and has been active in a number of international, national and Minnesota causes consistent with the commitments of his public service. Mondale also helped promote a new generation of Minnesota political leaders.

Nor was Eagleton the last. Missouri's John Danforth, whose Senate service overlapped Eagleton's from 1977-87, also returned to St. Louis when he retired from the Senate in 1995. He, too, has been active in civic causes. He and Eagleton co-chaired the embryonic stem cell fight and Danforth established the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University, a leading institute which engages in scholarly research and programming to inform academic and public communities on the intersection of religion and politics. Danforth has tried to promote Republican proteges like State Auditor Tom Schweich.

From time to time, Eagleton, Mondale and Danforth returned to national service, Eagleton as a member of President Bill Clinton's President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Mondale as Ambassador to Japan and as special envoy to Indonesia, Danforth as the investigator of the Waco raid and later as President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan and as Ambassador to the United Nations. With the conclusion of each new public service, they returned home, to once again become public citizens in their home states and towns.

Public citizens of the caliber of Eagleton, Mondale and Danforth can do a lot of good in their home communities. They have a sophisticated understanding about how our government works which they can communicate to citizens. They can inspire others to go into public service. They can educate the public through their writings and speeches targeted to local audiences. They can help their communities and states address their problems.

Because he recognized the virtue in dispersing talent across the country, Justice Louis Brandeis used to encourage his many protégés to return to their home towns rather than remain in D.C. Many did not heed his advice. "I'm from Fargo, North Dakota," one protested.

Of course, every former member of Congress who stays in D.C. isn't a sell out who demeans public service. Many have contributed honorably. And the Eagletons, Mondales and Danforths were exemplary public servants. Few formers would enrich their communities as much as they have.

Still, we would benefit if more public servants decided to spend their retirements in our towns, rather than in this town, and to follow the models of Eagleton, Mondale and Danforth and others who have returned home to be public citizens.