The first of the breed was named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman patrician who twice left his farm 2,500 years ago to serve as defender and dictator of the empire until his work was done. Then he gave up power and went home, which is why his name is still remembered today.
The American model was George Washington. After his second term as president, he could have claimed the office for life or set himself up as a monarch. That's what most people wanted. Historians agree his greatest moment came when he quit.
One of the quirks of American politics is that those who voluntarily shrug off power at their peak achieve their greatest popularity when they are out of the spotlight. A well-timed exit tells people that a politician values something beyond the power and prestige of office. The modern push for term limits doesn't have the same impact; retirement is not voluntary.
Tennessee has a rich history of examples. The latest was state Sen. Robert Rochelle of Lebanon, who announced recently that he's leaving after 20 years in the Senate.
Rochelle's decision, like those before him, must be complex. Rochelle can dominate the Senate with his oratory and intellect, but he crashed against the rocks in his effort to pass a progressive income tax. Rochelle is not a warm and fuzzy politician; he has many enemies and can be ruthless against them.
The whispers are that polls showed Rochelle trailing badly against Rep. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet in this year's election. However, given the leanings of the district and his skills as a campaigner, it's hard to believe that Rochelle wouldn't have won or at least come very close.
Rochelle has been the point man on the most complex issues before the legislature in the past two decades, including telecommunications and ethics. With the income tax dormant, there wasn't a clear challenge in sight to occupy his energy. The other whisper that doesn't ring true is that he was cowed by the threats and harshness of those who tried to demonize him over the income tax. That isn't Rochelle.
Sen. Fred Thompson is another current example. He could have won another term this year, probably without setting foot in the state. But he said his heart wasn't in it. He still hasn't fully explained his decision, but there may be a clue in former Sen. Howard Baker, a man Thompson has idolized all his adult life.
Baker comes from a long line of political figures, but his course was always set by the model of Cincinnatus. He was an enormously powerful figure in Washington, serving as the Republican leader of the Senate. He could probably still be a Tennessee senator if he wanted.
In 1980, Baker was two years into his third term and running for president. He was only 55. One day in a speech at Brown University in Rhode Island, he got pretty wound up in his rhetoric and said something to the effect that whatever happened in the presidential race, this was his last hurrah in elective politics.
Later, on his campaign airplane, I asked Baker if it was a slip of the tongue or if he meant what he said. He meant it, he said coolly. The story hit the front page, but most Tennesseans simply didn't believe it. Baker has gone on to serve as White House chief of staff, a major law firm rainmaker, and now ambassador to Japan.
Politicians on the Cincinnatus model usually don't return to elective politics, but sometimes, they do. Bill Purcell was a fast-rising young star in the General Assembly, serving as majority leader. He was being touted as a future House speaker or governor. He astounded and baffled Capitol Hill in 1996 when he quit and went to work at a Vanderbilt think tank. In 1999, of course, he returned to politics and won an upset victory as mayor of Nashville.
Politics (and particularly the current legislature) is full of people who should quit but don't. Maybe that's why we place high value on people who shouldn't quit but do.
Larry Daughtrey is a columnist for the Nashville Tennessean, where this column appeared in slightly different form.