2013 Saw Loss Of Many Wondrous Pols
When it came to passings, 2013 was a terrible year. Many politicians, folks of a bygone era of talent and grace left us. None were particularly young in years– most were over 80, but their passings came rather quickly. And despite a combined 182 years of service in Congress between them (and in one case a legendary Mayoralty), I know I’d get unanimous consent by making the observation that they left much still to be accomplished. Yes, while all had their own niches and styles, they shared a common bond: a combination of civility and common sense which, at the end of the day, saw real results for their constituency and their country.
Frank Lautenberg and New Jersey were one in the same and his pride in the state led him to look after it in endless ways. He got his start in gritty Paterson assisting his father in a silk mill, then succeeded in realizing the American dream by founding his own company. It has grown to become the nationally renowned ADP. Lautenberg was a hero to airplane passengers. It was he who proposed the nation’s smoking ban on domestic flights. But his warmth defined him. He’d talk to anyone (office interns, passerby’s) like they were regular pals.
When I would see a one of Lautenberg’s Senate colleagues, past or current, and would tell them that he was my Senator, their faces would light up with glee. At a minimum they adored him. But many were not shy about calling him among their favorite people. And New Jersey felt the same way.
For Lautenberg assiduously pursued Jersey causes; clean beaches, funding infrastructure, it goes on and on. But Lautenberg’s main, long sought goal was so close that he probably felt he could touch it. A new tunnel from the Hudson River to Penn Station (the current one is 100 years old). With Lautenberg’s pushing, the federal government approved it but then newly elected Governor Chris Christie killed it. Lautenberg’s youth was on full display. He loved to walk and even at his advanced age, he’d outpace his staffers. And for New Jersey, he ran a true marathon.
Ed Koch didn’t build New York City but one might say, he rebuilt it. When he took office in 1977, the city was barely into it’s recovery from the fiscal unrest that had left the city unable to pay it’s debts amid a sea of financial unrest. Koch, with his booming voice and tell it like it is attitude, lifted the city up. Indeed, Koch’s outspokenness was as big as the “Big Apple” itself. “I don’t get ulcers,” he once said. “I say what’s on my mind.” And many times, the opinion of those on the receiving end would often be the first to call it the most common-sense thing they’d ever heard.
Koch continued sharing their viewpoints well after he left office. He’d have a talk-radio show, serve as Judge on the “People’s Court” and continued fighting for what he believed in. In an obituary, Reuters, calling Koch, “tall and mostly bald,” would say he “had a quip for every occasion.” And he would use it to suffer fools gladly, particularly foes of Israel.
On his death, the most singular praise of Koch was “He was a good man.” Reuters noted “He was the only U.S. mayor to have a bestselling autobiography that was turned into an off-Broadway musical.” And partly because of his efforts, the city that never sleeps will flourish forever.
Tom Foley may have been the last true statesman Speaker. Democrats and Republicans alike said that his fairness Foley’s fairness was a hallmark of his personality. At no time was that an example than during the debate over the authorization of the Persian Gulf War. Foley’s gift was his steadiness, his gray hair almost a necessary backdrop. He didn’t have the booming oration of O’Neill or the need to comment on everything in America like Gingrich. But he was mild-mannerism. And he faithfully shepherded the Democratic agenda, all while hailing from a district that, at the national level, was genuinely swing territory.
Ultimately, that may have been his downfall. Foley was unseated in the Republican tsunami of 1994, the first Speaker to see that fate since 1862. But his legacy will always succeed him.
Ike Skelton may be defined by one trait: fidelity to the military. He did not serve. Yet he was the best friend the Armed Forces ever had. No need was too small for Skelton to champion and his Chairmanship of the Armed Forces Committee was a capstone of his long-sought goal. He was also a literal last link to a Truman Democrat. His father was friends with the former President, Skelton himself attended the President’s inauguration, and he would urge Skelton to seek the Independence, area Congressional seat in 1962. Skelton passed that year but when he decided to go for the seat in 1976, he had the full backing of Truman’s 91 year old widow.
In office, Skelton was one person whose door was as accessible to Democrats as Republicans. His smile to passer-by’s in the hall was as genuine as his commitment to his people. His dream to chair Armed Services was long thwarted by Democrats inability to win the majority and in an elevator in 2005, I told Skelton he was “the best person who never got to chair Armed Services” (Democrats would take the majority the following year).
Skelton incurred the wrath of his own party who once tried to remove him from his committee chairmanship– along with other Democrats, for voting against the party’s main agenda. Ironically, Foley put a stop to that. But even Skelton’s legendary Missouri first creed wasn’t enough to save him from a wave. His 2010 loss was unthinkable even a year before. It was almost a taking the good with the bad. But with characteristic graciousness, he called his opponent and proclaimed “his love affair for Miss –or ah.” When he was leaving, one colleague took to the House floor to repeat the 1950’s mantra, “I Like Ike.” Of her Chairman, she said, “I Love Ike!” I believe the nation will feel the same.
One of the men Skelton worked with on military issues was Bill Young, and if any nickname is warranted for the Floridian following a service of 43 years in the House, it is that of “Mr. Appropriator.” Young served as Chairman of the panel for six. But his time as Chairman of the panel’s Defense subcommittee would make him an equal powerhouse. Young was one of the most recognizable Capitol Hill figures on the subway or the marble corridors.
Also legendary was his devotion to military families, as visits to the troops would become routine. So would his love of St. Petersburg, the Florida city that sent him to Congress consistently, and usually overwhelmingly, for 22 terms, longer than any other Republican. Many landmarks bear his name.
Young was the consummate insider, a master of compromise. Many times, that is not complimentary. But Young had no ego. Having achieved his long sought goal of becoming Chairman, Young was visibly pained by being forced to preside over a rule or strategy devised by the far right-wing of his conference. But his zeal for the process and his word as his bond made him beloved on both sides. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called Young “a very special man who lived Lincoln’s admonition: ‘charity for all and malice toward none.’?” And to paraphrase Lincoln’s Secretary of State Ed Seward, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Many make their way to Congress because of a win. Lindy Boggs found herself there because of a loss. Her husband, Hale Boggs, perished in a 1972 plane crash to Alaska. In early 1973, Lindy sought the seat and won. While “Miss Lindy” would become a major player in her own right, her real asset was her graciousness accompanied by her southern warmth. After leaving Congress, President Clinton appointed her Ambassador to the Vatican which led one to wonder how she could “deal with those boys.” But that was what made “Miss Lindy” unique. She could deal with everyone.
Andy Jacobs epitomizes the term iconoclastic. For colleagues, guessing with certainty which way the man from Indianapolis would go on a given issue could be a fool’s errand. His vote in favor of the capital gains tax was decisive, and surprising and eliminated any chance Jacobs would have to move up on Ways and Means. But Jacobs was an early and unmitigated champion to Civil Rights and other liberal causes. He fought to make sure widows and orphans would get their full share. His personal frugality defined him. He would never attend conventions unless he could pay his own way and would often be seen on the House floor with his dog. Jacobs once refused to board an airplane because it only had first-class seats available. The plane crashed, killing everyone on board.
I can say this. If the United States Congress were composed of 535 Andy Jacobs’, the phrase, “Congress spends like drunken sailors” would be obsolete.
On his retirement, Jacobs’ Pennsylvania colleague Bill Coyne said Jacobs was known for “his wry, quirky sense of humor and his dry wit have shocked and amused his colleagues, congressional witnesses, and hearing audiences on countless occasions. The Ways and Means Committee will be a much less spontaneous place when he leaves at the end of this year.
No one could know that Coyne would also pass this year. A dedicated servant of Pittsburgh, Coyne also took second fiddle to his western Pennsylvania colleague Jack Murtha when it came to headlines. But Coyne liked it that way. In fact, it was his style. A low-key nature defined him. But that did not temper his effectiveness. A solid liberal, his time on Ways and Means was spent fighting for tax credits and residents of his Pittsburgh area. In 1992, Congress was unpopular and Coyne faced a rare primary opponent, a local attorney who tried to paint him with the same broad brush that was tarring other members. Coyne took 72%.
On his death, Coyne’s nephew Dan said, “You can get a lot done for your constituents if you have the respect and admiration of your colleagues, and Bill Coyne is one of the best liked guys down here.”
That can be said of all of the above. We were lucky to have them. The results of their contributions will be felt for years.