- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

The year was 1996, and the place was Mexico City. Sitting at a table of hostile legislators and badgering reporters, Sen. Paul Coverdell, Georgia Republican, and the little-known Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, took question after bruising question.

There had been an incident involving the death of illegal immigrants in Riverside, Calif. Was it not true that Americans are racist? There had been words on the floor of Congress about the need for Mexico to cooperate in prosecuting and extraditing drug traffickers. Wasn't this because the U.S. had no respect for Mexican sovereignty? The drug war was a U.S. problem, so why was a U.S. senator here to talk about it in Mexico? This was the tone. Mr. Coverdell listened thoughtfully.

Never raising his voice, never visibly angering, he waited for openings. To each question, he offered a sincere, respectful, direct and honest answer. Throughout, there was the wonderful twinkle in his ever-playful eyes. Several hours later, still sitting, he had demonstrated a remarkable fact: There are men who can listen to harsh, often ad hominem, attacks and slowly turn the attackers into admirers. In forum after forum, Mr. Coverdell was able to catch swords and verbally turn them into plowshares.

The drug war saving young American lives by strengthening our national resolve to beat this insidious foe was not just a vote or an issue to him. Sharing the nation's worry, pain and deepening concern over damage wrought by indifference to illegal drugs at their source and in our communities Mr. Coverdell brought passion to the issue. His unique, ever-creative oratory ebbed and flowed, on and off the Senate floor, always in defense of more effort at home and abroad. One could not listen to him without discerning, at once, both his deep commitment to restoring a drug-free culture, and helping our allies Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico in their efforts to protect and defend their own cultures.

Looking back, Mr. Coverdell was prescient about the rising tide of drug-driven unrest in places like Colombia, the link between drug money and terrorism, the need for greater U.S. vigilance across the hemisphere, and the critical need to apply funds and toil to stopping drugs at their source. From 1992 forward, he was clear, well-reasoned, persuasive and invariably on target. Indeed, there has not been a force in the U.S. Senate who has brought more passion and common sense to this issue than did Mr. Coverdell. His leadership was in the tradition of Ronald Reagan quiet respect for others, self-deprecating good humor, a special gift with words, and the unquenchable inner fire that grows up beside lifetime fidelity to principle.

Inner conviction tempered by outer good cheer: In the tough moments, it is to such men that others turn.

In realms beyond the drug war, he was no less a leader. Almost overnight, in 1992, he became an unsung voice of reason in the U.S. Senate leadership. The role permitted him to work as a grand unifier. Long years of service with onetime-Speaker Newt Gingrich in the Georgia Legislature allowed that voice of reason to wash, periodically, over into the House. In 1996, he unified Republicans in thoughtfully battling against the idea of socialized, government-heavy health care, quietly following Abraham Lincoln's adage that the best way to beat enemies is to convert them to friends.

Childless, he nevertheless demonstrated a deep love of children. While rising to the role of secretary of the Republican Senate Conference and chief Senate adviser to presidential candidate George Bush on education and other issues, he led legislative drives with a direct impact on bettering children's education. Most celebrated, from 1996 to present, Mr. Coverdell was the father of a proposal to widen access to "higher education savings accounts," permitting parents to withdraw tax-free funds for K-12 school expenses.

Often, in the years 1995 to 1999, Mr. Cover- dell was viewed by House leaders as the U.S. senator most adept at threading tough legislative and oratorical needles, and then nimbly sewing together the necessary working relationships to convert a good idea into law, especially in the counter-narcotics arena.

He was a driving force behind such valuable laws as reauthorization of the White House drug czar's office in 1998, creation of the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act the same year, critical funding for assets as diverse as intelligence gathering P-3 AEW aircraft for U.S. Customs and targeted education resources for the states.

He was dogged advocate for, and almost single-handedly assured passage of, the Drug Kingpin Extradition Law of 1999, and was always a loyal friend to those in uniform, both law enforcement and military.

Best, perhaps, he was the unrivaled prince of explaining simple "whys" and "why nots" of complicated policy. Many times, members of the House would ask, going into a controversial or complicated press conference, "Will Sen. Coverdell be there?" If so, their job was already easier.

To many in the House and Senate, most recently leadership in both chambers, he was an unsung warrior.

Finally, he was more than articulate and thoughtful, principled and likeable. He was also a gentleman consistently and without exception. He was the example of public service at its absolute best. Rudyard Kipling wrote of greatness that the test is to "keep your head when those around you are losing theirs," and so it was with Sen. Paul Coverdell. Here was a man who asked no adulation, shied from fanfare, while toiling deep into the night for what was right. He was a man of honor and insight, humor and grace.

Robert B. Charles was staff director for the House Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice (1995-1999), and chief staffer to the Speaker's Task Force on a Drug-Free America (1997-1999).

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