Life After Losing

Blanche Lincoln on the Senate floor in December 2010. AP

She was one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents in 2010—the subject of a fierce primary challenge from the left and an even fiercer challenge from the right in November. But in the end, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s vote in favor of President Obama’s health-care reform helped pull her under, and she lost her Senate seat by a substantial margin.

So Lincoln watched with more than casual interest from afar this week as the Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the very measure that ended her career. “I’ve said all along it wasn’t a perfect bill, and I hope it’s something that can be improved upon. But I got in there and rolled up my sleeves to make it the best it could be,” Lincoln says.

She recently visited with a woman from Arkansas who lost her husband to illness and was filing for bankruptcy; neither had health-care coverage. Lincoln says she still feels a sense of duty: “Public service is not just reserved for a few. Just because I’m not an elected official that doesn’t mean I’ll give up. We all need to be engaged, it takes all of us to solve problems.”

Lincoln, who spent 18 years in elected office, is one of a host of lawmakers now adjusting to life without power. A conservative political wave swept away such high-ranking Democrats as South Carolina’s Rep. John Spratt, 68, and Delaware’s Republican Congressman Mike Castle, 71.

One moment, they are striding on the big stage, surrounded by scurrying aides, courted by cash-dispensing lobbyists, chased by scrambling reporters demanding to know their views. And in the blink of an eye, all that vanishes. They are ordinary citizens, stripped of the trappings of power, still called by their old titles in a way that proclaims they used to be someone important.

Private life entails big changes, almost like a difficult divorce, but there is one overriding adjustment. “These are people who loved their work,” says William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “To be suddenly exiled from the arena of combat and decision making in areas you care about can be really, really tough.”

And so, as a new Congress ramps up, Lincoln is out in Virginia, sipping tea in a coffee shop and wrestling with her new BlackBerry. She’s turned in her old official one, which had a special system for emergency alerts and a paging system for important votes. Her replacement is for an everywoman. “It’s a new system,” says Lincoln with a wistful Southern lilt. “And I’m a creature of habit.”

Lincoln, who, at age 38, became the youngest woman to serve in the Senate, still has a packed schedule, but on the day I sat down with her, it revolved around returning science equipment to her sons’ school, straightening files, and making phone calls to figure out her next steps. She also needed to change the oil in her car, which still had a congressional parking license on her dashboard. Lincoln can now wear clogs and zero makeup, because her aunt no longer has an excuse to call her staffers and insist someone make her wear lipstick on TV.

As a young woman, she went into politics searching “for something that would feed my soul,” she says, and it’s not clear how she might find that nourishment now. When a woman from a nearby table steps forward to say, “You were so great for working moms, I hate to see you go,” it was clear Lincoln shares that view. “Am I frustrated? Yes. I’d like to still have a seat at the table,” she says. And it may sound self-helpish, but she’s trying awfully hard to take the long view. “It’s just not where I’m supposed to be right now.”

Lincoln was a moderate Democrat barely holding on in a conservative state, but Mike Castle had never lost a race, and his primary upset by Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell “was a body blow,” he says. Back home in Delaware, Castle hasn’t come close to finding a new calling: “Nothing’s floored me to the point where I’d say ‘I’ll take it’ ... Whatever it is, I can’t imagine it will be as rewarding as elected office, it’s very disconcerting.”

Deprived of a full-time staff, Castle is driving himself around more than usual. His aides gave him an iPad for Christmas, (“I’m a little technologically unsound”) and, well, he misses them. Castle has counted 62 books on his shelves he plans to read to help him through the weeks and months ahead. “There’s going to be an empty feeling, but I’ve had a good run, and I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.” His wife, Jane, has suggested he think about retiring altogether. “He misses the structure that work gave him. But I’ve enjoyed having him home,” she says. “It’s also nice to be able to say ‘Hey, would you mind going to the grocery store?’ ”

After 28 years in office, fellow workaholic John Spratt is navigating not just the loss of his leadership role but the reality of aging and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. His symptoms include a hand tremor that gets worse when he’s nervous (he learned to clutch the side of podiums during raucous town-hall meetings), stiffness, and a stooped posture that grows more pronounced in the evenings. The deficit hawk spent his last day at work in his hideaway office, rolled-up flags leaning against cardboard boxes (almost 500 had already been shipped out). “This is the majors, this is where decisions are made, where we make a more perfect union,” and he’d no longer be a part of it.

It might sound simple, but to hear Spratt describe the loss of the career he is so passionate about is to feel the genuine ache of intellectual loss: “Just to be here you get to hear such interesting people and experts in their fields,” he says, his voice softening. “The amount of information you can amass, if you work hard here, is phenomenal.” Now Spratt will be reduced to watching on C-Span and “coaching from the sidelines, trying to get the team to call in the right play.”

He’ll have more time for physical therapy and to try to write a family history from papers and documents haphazardly stored at home (“I’m a hack, really”) as part of new philosophy. “So much has been deferred, so much swept under the rug.” He says his diagnosis often feels daunting but he spent time last year with members of a Parkinson’s support group in Charlotte who talked about moving forward despite their setbacks. That was the first time, says Spratt, “that I could clearly see there’s a life after Parkinson’s, and a life after Congress.”

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