Goodbye, Mr. Obey
May 10, 2010 10:08 AM
In September of 2007 I made one of my semi-annual lobbying trips to Washington. This time, in addition to meeting with our Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and our U.S. Senators, I set up a meeting with Congressman David Obey, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. I was a little nervous going in because, while I had met Obey before, it wasn't in a setting where I was lobbying him and he had a reputation for being cantankerous to those asking for more money from the federal government, which is exactly what I was there to do.
I was also nervous because I had read his book, "Raising Hell for Justice." In the book he described how he made people coming to his office looking for money answer two questions. The first was, would you repeal the Bush tax cuts to help pay for what you want? And the second was, is there something you want me to do for somebody else that is more important than whatever it is that you want me to do for you?
I was ready with my answers. But first we had to wait, which only added to my anxiety. The meeting had been set to happen in Obey's regular office, but he had to stay close to the House floor, so his staff switched it to his Capitol office. I was ushered into this huge, ornate room with a balcony that looked out over the National Mall with an unobstructed view straight to the Washington Monument. As I waited for the Chairman I was reminded of the line, "And what do you want, Scarecrow?!"
Finally, Obey came in and apologized for making me wait, explaining that Nancy Pelosi had called him in for a last minute meeting. I told him it wasn't a problem as I had been enjoying his view and that if I was him I would have taken Nancy Pelosi's meeting before mine too. I then jumped in with my answers to the questions from his book, even though he hadn't asked. I told him that I "Sure as hell!" would repeal Bush's tax cuts for the rich. Now, I am not really a "Sure as hell!" kind of guy, but I thought Obey was, so I wanted to impress him with my blue collar candor. In answer to the second question, I had just run into Eileen Mershart from the Madison YWCA coming out of Obey's office. So I said, "I want whatever it is that Eileen wanted."
Obey laughed. Then I did what I had come there to do, making my pitch for some projects for Madison. Obey listened patiently and said he'd do what he could. Then he asked about people he knew in Madison. He lit up as we discussed mutual acquaintances, politics back home, who was up to what, the public mood and so on. We moved on to a little bit of Wisconsin political history, reminiscing about Gaylord Nelson, who I knew just a little bit and Obey knew well. I told him that one of my most special memories will always be when Obey rose at the end of Senator Nelson's memorial service in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda and, unaccompanied and without saying a word, played "Amazing Grace" on his harmonica. When he was finished, he simply found his seat again in silence and the crowd, regaining its composure, started a thunderous ovation that began for Obey's beautiful playing but soon melded into the final tribute of the afternoon for Gaylord Nelson.
After our discussion was over, I was reminded of another quote from Obey's book. "I am a politician and proud of it," he wrote. The people I like most in government are people like David Obey. People who love politics and understand it. People who have a long record of accomplishing things for the public good by knowing how to work in the public sector. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were all skilled politicians who reveled in politics, just like Obey. I don't have much respect for people who win an election and then claim that they are above politics. I assume they're either lying or so self unaware as to be delusional. I'll take an honest politician who loves the political world over a self-righteous, humorless ideologue any day of the week.
After four decades in Congress, David Obey announced last week that he would step down. It's fitting enough for him to do that now, after fighting for a stimulus package that kept us out of a second great depression and an historic health care program that will cover 30 million previously uninsured Americans. Obey is unapologetic about his belief that government can improve people's lives and that politics, done right, is a noble venture and one that can be enjoyed by practitioners and voters alike. I can't fault him for leaving the stage now after he's contributed so much. But let's hope there are more like him - real politicians in the best sense of that word - on the way.