Virginia’s Wampler A True Statesman

Historic Tidbit: “The worst thing a politician can be is dull. At least I’m interesting.” Richard Nixon

In this age, true statesman, folks who put country first, seem to be becoming more and more of sparse commodities. But William Wampler, a Republican who served nine terms in the House, was high among the.

The class of 1966 saw Republicans gain 47 seats, with the most famous member of the class being George H.W. Bush. But there was one member who had integrity. William Wampler of Virginia’s 9th district, who at one point was married to Howard Baker’s sister.

Actually, Wampler could lay claim to being a part of two classes. He was originally thrust into office by the Eisenhower landslide in 1952 and served a single term. But he was just 26 years old, making him the youngest member of Congress that year. In a statement after Wampler’s death, Virginia Governor Bob McDonald noted that by 26, Wampler “had already served in World War II and Congress.” When his opponent made an issue of his age, he told him, “if he wouldn’t mention my age, I won’t mention yours.” But as Mountain Peeks article said, “an unusual coincidence came to Wampler’s rescue.” In England, King George died and “if she’s old enough to rule the British Empire, maybe I can become a member of Congress.” And Wampler noted that he had an advantage his opponent could not match: time. As a legislator, he was kept in session while Wampler was free to campaign. He won.

Meeting Ike as a freshman Congressman (Photo from Mountain Peeks)

Fate may have intervened again. As Puerto Rican nationalists sprayed the House floor with bullets, Wampler had taken family to the gallery. If not, he guestimates the bullets But by 1954, the Democrats got back their national stride and that was enough to sweep Wampler out by just 821 votes. But as the Republicans lost their majority, Wampler lost his seat. A 1956 comeback attempt failed and Wampler stayed out of politics for a decade and ran a furniture business. But as the national climate began to Favor the GOP, Wampler attempted a comeback and made it.

Wampler and son, a Virginia Legislator (Mountain Peeks Magazine)

And Wampler got a nickname that would stick. Jesse Beecher, in noting Wampler’s age, said, “now we’ve nominated a new Eagle, a young eagle, a Bald eagle.” Wampler then became known as “The Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands.”

In office, his record was definitely centrist. He said his “family was opposed to slavery on religious grounds, and many of them, when they saw the war clouds gathering, moved to Kentucky.” He boasts he helped shepherded the Federal Black Lung legislation and backed the first food stamp program. And he remained faithful to the latter until the end.He opposed the Ford administration’s plan to raise prices on food stamps (“it shocked my sense of equity). , and it was beaten 374-38. He opposed Ford’s plan to hold Social Security increases to five percent, rather than the 8.5% projected by COLA, arguing it “could hit the groups least able to cope.” And he opposed Ford’s request for a tariff increase as well as an Appropriation for South Vietnam and Cambodia. And he said budget cuts would have to mean defense cuts, calling it “a fertile area.”

That prompted the New York Times to run a story, “A GOP loyalist opposes key Ford proposals.” Wampler responded that “I admire him, he’s my friend. He’s had tough decisions to make but I just couldn’t go along.” Wampler, whom the Times describes as “soft-spoken,” summed up his predicament thus: “my first obligation is to my constituents and not to my party.” But he’d say years later that “philosophically, he and Ford were on the same wave length.” As Ford left the scene, Wampler had little good to say about Carter but did back the Chrysler loan package and vote to create the Department of Education. On other issues, he was fiercely parochial, voting with less than 100 members against a bill that would kill New River Dam He was thinking the economy, saying, “”This project would provide just the kind of economic shot in the arm this area needs.”

The district was called the “Fighting 9th” because it was so fiercely contested. It’s Republican heritage went back to he Civil War. But at the national level, that was ebbing. Reagan carried it in 1980 and Carter, even while losing Virginia, took it by 6% in ’76. But having survived Watergate, Wampler seemed poised to hold the 9th as long as he wanted it. Unfortunately, he got caught up in yet another Republican mid-term, which very nearly mirrored his losing margin from 1954.

Wampler died last year at 86 and Jim Mullins, a former employee called him, “the last of the old-time political figures. He always wanted to talk to constituents. Several times, we’d go to (a meeting) and there would be 150 or 200 people there. He wanted to talk to each and every one of them and try to help them with their problems.” Bill could draw a crowd faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Wampler’s respect was such that he managed to survive the Watergate year of 1974, and he was the first congratulatory call (of precious few) that Gerald Ford made that evening. His hold on the district seemed secure for as long as he wanted. But by 1982, he came up on one midterm landslide too m any and lost to Democrat Rick Boucher by 1,138 votes.

Wampler’s son has been a Virginia State Senator since 1987.


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