Broder: Award is a tribute to bipartisanship
By David Broder
THE WASHINGTON POST
WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives, too often these days a cockpit of bitter partisanship, took an hour last week to remind itself and the country that it has been -- and could again be -- a much better place.
At a ceremony in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, current members honored four of its alumni with the first Congressional Distinguished Service Award. Two Republicans, John Rhodes of Arizona and Robert Michel of Illinois, both former minority leaders, and two Democrats, Lou Stokes of Ohio and Don Edwards of California, received the plaudits of their peers. Rhodes, who is battling cancer, was represented by his son, former Rep. Jay Rhodes.
Together, the four honorees served 130 years, each with a House career of 30 years or more. Term-limits advocates would make such service impossible, and the country would be the poorer for it.
Stokes was the first black elected to Congress from Ohio. He grew up in Cleveland public housing with his brother Carl, who became the first black mayor of a major American city. Stokes served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the House ethics panel -- one measure of the trust in which he was held by his colleagues of both parties.
Edwards, a polished Stanford graduate, was -- as his successor, Zoe Lofgren, noted -- a one-time FBI agent who was willing to "go after misconduct in the FBI." Perhaps the House's most consistent advocate of civil rights and civil liberties, he is also the most modest of men, pointing out that on the "most glorious moment" of his career, the day the House passed the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, "the Republicans did better than the Democrats" in producing the needed votes, thanks in part to members like John Rhodes.
Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who along with former Democratic Minority Leader Dick Gephardt originated the awards, wanted to do more than honor some fondly remembered elders. The implicit message of the ceremony is that Congress is at its best when its members focus on their shared responsibility to the nation, not their partisan power games. It came through most clearly in the words of Michel and his successor, Rep. Ray LaHood.
LaHood, who served on Michel's staff for many years, recalled in introducing his old boss that "Bob taught us by his example that the House floor should be a forum for reasoned debate among colleagues equal in dignity. . . . He came to the House every day to do the work of the people, and not to engage in ideological melodramas or political vendettas." LaHood, whose own House career shows he learned the lesson well, let the implied rebuke to the bomb-throwers in both parties hang in the air.
Michel, often near tears at the praise, recalled that he spent all "of my 38 years as a member of the minority party. Oh, those were frustrating years," he said to understanding laughter. "But . . . I never really felt I was out of the game or that I had no part to play. Under the rules of the House, the traditions of the House . . . there is a role to play for the minority. . . . We struck a deal, we made a bargain," and worked at "bringing dissonant factions together . . . to craft good legislation for the country -- that was the joy of it!" That is a joy few members of the current House -- where Republicans and Democrats caucus separately to plot each other's ruin -- have known.
But in times of crisis, the large-minded spirit that all four of the honorees embodied is exactly what the nation needs. Rhodes is perhaps the best example. As the Republican leader of the House during impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, he faced enormous pressure from the White House and Nixon loyalists to make the Judiciary Committee hearings look as partisan as the comparable hearings on Bill Clinton were to become 24 years later.
This he refused to do. Rhodes defended Nixon as long as he could, but insisted that the committee be given the evidence on the White House tapes. And when the "smoking gun" tape was revealed, Rhodes announced at a televised news conference he would vote for impeachment. A day later, he was one of the three senior GOP lawmakers who went to the White House and told Nixon it was time to resign.
Today's congressional leaders -- and members -- need such role models. Fortunately, they are still around.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Washington Post Writers Group.