Law Weekly Exclusive Interview with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse '82

Anand Jani ‘20
Special Projects Editor

In what is certain to be a relief for those students who find themselves academically in the middle of the pack at the Virginia School of Law, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse ’82 was never on the Dean’s List or a candidate for a Supreme Court clerkship. By his own account, the Senator’s law school career was “relatively undistinguished.” Justice Richard Neely of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia once quipped, on a visit to UVA Law during Whitehouse’s 3L year, “I sometimes find it difficult to be always serious about the law and that is reflected in the fact that my law clerk next year is Sheldon Whitehouse.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse ‘82 discussed his career and his time at Virginia Law with the Law Weekly. Photo credit UVA Law.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse ‘82 discussed his career and his time at Virginia Law with the Law Weekly. Photo credit UVA Law.

Nevertheless, through his own dedication to the pursuit of public service, Senator Whitehouse now finds himself as one of UVA Law’s most venerable alumni. Serving as the junior United States Senator from the State of Rhode Island, Senator Whitehouse’s accession to the office shows us that success is not determined solely by grades and accolades but rather by one’s undaunted passion and willingness to commit.

In February of this year, Senator Whitehouse graciously spoke the Virginia Law Weekly about his journey through the public sector and reminded us that it is not about where one begins their path but where they end it––and the journey along the way. The Law Weekly is pleased to share his insights with this article.

In the most extraordinary admission throughout our interview, Senator Whitehouse revealed that one of his favorite courses at UVA Law was Civil Procedure. Taught by former Virginia Law Professor Stephen Saltzburg, Senator Whitehouse confessed that he found the class, which is a bane to most first-year students, “interesting and even fun.” As a show of good faith that Senator Whitehouse has not lost touch with the common law student, he vigorously conceded that this was an “astonishing” thought.  Although Senator Whitehouse was a law student without a clear career path or particular academic bent, there was no question about whether he would enter private practice or public service. As the son, grandson, and nephew of Foreign Service Officers, the sense of duty to serve one’s country was inculcated in Senator Whitehouse from a young age. Raised outside of the traditional champagne circuit of politics, his childhood consisted of rural communities, powdered milk, and non-potable water. Places where, although resources were sparse, the people were cheerful and buoyed by a sense of generosity that looked beyond their own personal comfort. Having grown up around Americans who eschewed the safety and comforts available to them at home, Senator Whitehouse developed a sense of civic pride that was baked into his personal code of ethics before he ever reached the halls of UVA Law.

On Senator Whitehouse’s desk sits a collection of quotations that he compiled and published in 2012. The book started as a reference for the Senator to easily access quotes whose broadness made reattribution impossible without hours of research; it grew into a selection of timeless insights and inspiration that outline America’s core values. In typical Lawhoo fashion, Senator Whitehouse turned during the Law Weekly’s interview with him to a quotation from Thomas Jefferson that reads, “That our creator made the earth for the use of the living and not of the dead; that those who exist not, can have no use nor right in it, no authority or power over it; that one generation of men cannot foreclose or burthen its use to another . . . these are axioms so self-evident that no explanation can make them plainer.”

Reflecting upon how his training as a lawyer influenced his philosophy on legislating, Whitehouse stressed the importance of understanding how to distinguish between issues on which one has no choice but to go to battle and those that present an opportunity for a collegial resolution. He also stressed the importance of a good reputation and the confidence of one’s colleagues that you can be a person of your word. Comparing the “class” of one hundred in the United States Senate and his own Law School class of roughly the same size, Senator Whitehouse expounded upon not only the virtue, but also the necessity, of treating others fairly and establishing friendships regardless of ideology or party. He pushed back on the notion that the U.S. Senate has become less stable or less collaborative, but he did allow that so-called “titans” of the Senate (e.g., Senators Ted Kennedy, John McCain, Robert Byrd, and Joe Biden) no longer prevailed within the chamber. The lack of these personal gravitational centers, Whitehouse believes, has changed the personality of the legislative body, as individual lawmakers are less likely to stand out against the greater party structure that splits the upper house of Congress. 

When asked for advice for UVA Law students, especially those hoping to enter public service, Senator Whitehouse stated clearly and emphatically, “Dive in! Do not be picky! Work really hard! Try to be helpful! And trust that your behavior in that fashion will attract the attention of people who will want you to come work for them.” Even the most verbose Law Weekly editor cannot make this advice any plainer.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s rise from an average law student who started his legal career in the Public Utilities Regulatory Office of the State’s Attorney General’s Department (at a pay scale that, when measured against hours worked, came out to less than minimum wage) to a U.S. Attorney, a State Attorney General, and finally a United States Senator demonstrates that when the flame burns a bit brighter, you go a bit further. An inspired effort and a relentless drive are the true indicators of success.

To borrow from another’s words, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” If we can learn one thing from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse ’82, regardless of where we are from, where we are now, or where we will be, we can all reach just a little bit higher.

The Virginia Law Weekly thanks Senator Whitehouse and his deputy press secretary Richard Davidson for their time and efforts in making this interview possible.