Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively in the areas of presidential history, American foreign policy and constitutional law.
One doesn’t have to be an aging political scientist to understand the magnitude of three recent deaths of persons in the news. While the passings of former first lady Rosalynn Carter (Nov. 19), of former Secretary of State and national security adviser Henry Kissinger (Nov. 29) and of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Dec. 1) are certainly individually significant, so was their collective influence over a half-century.
When Rosalynn Smith married naval officer Jimmy Carter, she looked forward to a military life. But the death of Jimmy’s father led the couple back to their hometown of Plains, Georgia, to run the family farm. Rosalynn’s disappointment was muted, as Jimmy pursued a successful career in politics, culminating in election as the 39th president. As first lady, Rosalynn is credited with increasing focus and funding on mental health issues and elder care. Additionally, her emphasis on women’s issues no doubt impacted President Carter’s stellar record in appointing female judges. Finally, Rosalynn served as a close adviser to her husband and as a stand-in at many critical events. Like Jimmy, Rosalynn was devastated at the 1980 presidential election loss to Ronald Reagan. But the couple soon recouped to create The Carter Center and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. In 1987, Rosalynn established the Institute for Caregivers group. Along with husband Jimmy, Rosalynn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
Henry Kissinger’s family came to America to escape the Nazis’ destructive wrath. Henry’s academic prowess helped him earn a Bachelor of Arts and a Ph.D. from Harvard, where he later served as a political science professor. His writings came to the attention of Richard Nixon, former United States vice president and 1968 presidential contender. President Nixon appointed Kissinger as national security adviser at the outset of his administration in 1969 and simultaneously as secretary of state in 1973. After Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Kissinger continued as President Gerald Ford’s national security adviser for a year but remained secretary of state throughout the Ford years in office. Along with Richard Nixon, Kissinger planned and implemented a foreign policy that put America on a path to ending its decadelong fighting in Vietnam, divided Cold War allies Russia and China by simultaneously thawing relations with both, and brought stability to the Middle East during a chaotic period. For decades after he left government service, Kissinger continued to advise presidents and foreign officials alike as a geopolitical consultant. His death was noted by China as the passing of “an old friend.” While Kissinger’s realpolitik orientation to world affairs is an easy target for criticism, there is little doubt that his unique strategic thinking produced more benefits than drawbacks. Kissinger is one of just 21 U.S. citizens to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Sandra Day attended Stanford University, where she earned undergraduate and law degrees. After marrying John O’Connor and briefly practicing law, she began a public career that included stints as a deputy county attorney, the assistant attorney general of Arizona and an Arizona state senator. From 1975-81, she served as a county Superior Court judge and member of the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981, she was on the short list for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Potter Stewart. Following nomination by President Ronald Reagan and unanimous confirmation by the Senate, she became the first female associate justice in the nation’s history. Her service coincided with William Rehnquist (1971-86 as associate justice, 1986-2005 as chief justice), whom she once dated in law school. O’Connor’s tenure was highlighted by legal controversies on a number of areas, including abortion, affirmative action and the tiebreaking ruling in the 2000 presidential election. After announcing her retirement in 2005 to serve as a caregiver to her husband, Sandra still oversaw U.S. Appeals Court matters for a time. Her accolades include having the Arizona State University Law School named after her in 2006; being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009; and having a day named in her honor by the Arizona governor in 2018.
While all lives have value, some are noteworthy as measured by contributions to society. Over 13 recent days, the country lost the wisdom, skills and commitment of three fine Americans. Yet, their impact on politics, policy and law was and will remain substantial for political scientists and the public alike.
Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.