United States Senator for Minnesota Dave Durenberger died recently at the age of 88. Naturally, as a lifelong Minnesotan and U. S. Senator for 16 years, he was best known in his home state, but he was widely recognized beyond the state as he played a significant public role during his time in Washington. Yet sadly, he is probably remembered primarily for mistakes he made, for his human weakness, for his sins, to use the language of religion and his Catholic upbringing.
While a number of obituaries led with the fact that he was a “moderate Republican” or a “longtime Republican,” the New York Times obituary headline noted that Senator Durenberger was, “Censured by Senate in Ethics Breach.” A life summarized by a failure. It is, of course, the nature of obituaries to encapsulate long, rich, and complicated lives, yet the Times headline was both particularly unfair to Senator Durenberger and captured the hyper-critical essence of our times.
We are quick to be critical of those we disagree with and too willing to be ungenerous in our assessments of human weakness. We seem to forget that we are all sinners in need of grace and forgiveness. Dave Durenberger knew that in his heart and lived it out in his life after his deserved but painfully public condemnation from his Senate colleagues in 1990.
While he was never overtly religious in his public life or campaigns, his Catholic upbringing permeated his personal and public beliefs.
Senator Durenberger had an unusually strong connection to his undergraduate alma mater because he literally grew up on the campus of Saint John’s University in Collegeville. His father was a long-serving athletic director and his mother worked on campus and played a significant role in developing the alumni affairs office. Dave knew many students and coaches on campus but, most powerfully, he had strong relationships with many monks of Saint John’s Abbey. The monks founded the university and Saint John’s Preparatory School, which Durenberger also attended. Benedictines at Saint John’s played an active role as administrators on campus, professors at the university, and teachers in the prep school.
While he was never overtly religious in his public life or campaigns, his Catholic upbringing permeated his personal and public beliefs. His public persona was built on his central Minnesota upbringing, with an emphasis on “rural values,” family, religion, education, and using government policy to care for the vulnerable.
After military service and earning a law degree, Durenberger worked for two Minnesota governors in the 1970s. In 1978 he won the special election for the Senate seat after Hubert Humphrey died in office. His reputation for probity and clean politics followed him to Washington. Shortly after beginning his first term, he was named to the Senate ethics committee.
He placed an emphasis on rural values, family, religion, education, and using government policy to care for the vulnerable.
Durenberger’s moderate views and work across the aisle allowed him to influence health care legislation and environmental legislation. He was especially proud of his work on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Minnesotans rewarded him with two more election victories.
But his time in Washington also provided some temptations that proved irresistible. Shortly after his reelection in 1988, the Senate began a two year investigation into allegations of financial improprieties: violating Congressional limits on speaking fees and illegally seeking reimbursement for the use of his own Minnesota condominium. The investigation led to a Senate censure for his behavior. The vote was 96-0.
Senator Durenberger’s actions were a reminder of our fallen nature. Even the most respected and upstanding individual is not a saint. We are all susceptible to temptation. And this is the part of the story that the Times succinctly captured in its headline, an important and powerful reminder of human fallibility. But it does not tell the whole story. How he confronted the crisis and how he lived his life after the censure give us a deeper understanding of how he was shaped by his Catholic faith.
How he confronted the crisis and how he lived his life after the censure give us a deeper understanding of how he was shaped by his Catholic faith.
First, Senator Durenberger did not contest the allegations. Though some commentators at the time downplayed the actions, noting that Durenberger struggled to maintain two homes for a young family since he did not come from the moneyed background that many Senators did. Others suggested Durenberger’s misdeeds were trivial compared to the corrupting influence of money that flowed into politics through campaign contributions aimed at influencing legislators. Durenberger would have none of this. He said publicly that the Senate result was “a fair conclusion.”
Second, Durenberger could have resigned from the Senate and quietly disappeared from public life, but instead the Senator immediately declared his intention to make amends. “If there is a smudge on the Seal of the United States Senate, or on the Star of the North, [Minnesota], I will work my hardest to polish both back to brightness,” he said.
He served out the remaining four years of his Senate term, as painful as that diminished role surely was, and did not seek reelection. He then returned to his home state. Again, choosing to serve in a public role rather than disappear, he took a position directing the National Institute of Health Policy at the University of St. Thomas from 1994 to 2014, where he continued to address the health-care challenges he had championed throughout his time in public life.
Finally, he never shied away from honestly acknowledging his mistakes. In 2014, Dave was invited back to Saint John’s University for the Senator Eugene McCarthy Lecture, an annual event to honor public service and public servants. The event featured an interview with Senator Durenberger, a format he did not have to agree to and one that inevitably raised questions about the Senate censure. When asked about his public failures, he responded directly and honestly. He told the audience, including many students, the experience “taught me something about myself that I didn’t like and I changed who I was as a person. I will never regret that. That’s why I say it was a good experience. I was a changed person from that day on.” His honesty and contrition were a powerful reminder that we are all capable and deserving of redemption.
I was a changed person from that day on.
I only got to know Dave Durenberger late in his life when I was president of our shared alma mater. Before we met, my knowledge was of the public man. I knew about his Senate career with its emphasis on health care, the environment, and disabilities, and about his fall from grace, but I knew little about what he had done since the famous censure. I also knew little about his character or personality, but I came to admire Senator Durenberger deeply as I learned how he lived his life after his public humiliation.
If only the all-too-human public servants and, of course, individuals in private life, today would learn from the experiences of Senator David Durenberger. We should all confront our foibles, weaknesses, and sins with such humility and grace, and be remembered for our goodness, not just our sins.