After Illinois Congressman Paul Findley talked me into taking a sabbatical from my chosen profession as a newspaperman in 1981 to become his press secretary, I promised to spend no more than two years in Washington before returning to a newsroom somewhere.
“The key to surviving in Washington is remembering the advice of a Mafia don,” a long-time staff member in Congress told me shortly after arriving in DC. “What we do here is business. It should never be personal.”
For a while, that seemed to be the norm on Capitol Hill. We helped our Congressman take positions that some of us seemed way out of line but did so in the interest of the party while knowing compromise and coalition-building will find a middle ground that can draw enough support from both sides to reach a decision and pass legislation.
Republicans were the minority party and had been for decades but GOP leader Bob Michel promoted coalitions and consensus to try and get the job done. New president Roanoke Reagan surprised many when he and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill worked out a deal on a budget that delivered tax cuts along with support for needed social programs.
The deal, one of Michel’s aides told us in a meeting of press secretaries, came over a few drinks the President and Speaker shared at the White House during a meeting that went late into the night.
After hours, Democratic and Republican staff members would share tables and drinks at the Capitol Hill bars and talk more about the Washington Redskins (now the Commanders) than any debates and legislative issues.
The two-year plan turned into four as I took a new job, at the recommendation of the National Republican Congressional Committee, to become Communications Director for New Mexico Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. I spent the last six months on leave from his office staff to work on his campaign in Albuquerque and around the state.
Lujan was a conservative but knew how to work well with moderates. During the campaign, we would work to defeat his opponent, State Treasurer Jan Hartke, a rising Democratic star and son of former Indiana Sen. Vance Hartke.
We beat Hartke but his campaign manager and I became friends and, after the election, I suggested Lujan hire him as his district aide to work on Veterans Affairs issues. He turned out to be an excellent aide in a staff known for its great constituent service.
Lujan said he never cared about parties when it came to looking for staff members. He worried a lot about what he felt was a growing movement of what he called “political extremists” that he felt would destroy the GOP.
He did not like Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, who came to Congress in 1979 after becoming the first Republican to ever serve in the 6th Congressional District and quickly rose through the ranks as a loud,, often obnoxious, promotor of control without compromise and leadership without question.
Gingrich later engineered a phony “Contract With America” that promoted term limits, and end to “pork barrel ” legislation that led to enough GOP wins in both the House and Senate to give take over control of Congress. Gingrich became Speaker and declared that the only way the House would continue would be “my way or the highway.”
Coalitions collapsed. Bi-Partisanship began to disappear. “Continuing Resolutions” replaced permanent legislation because Gingrich and his followers threw up too many roadblocks to legislative progress.
Talk of term limits disappeared. So did promises to stop funneling federal money to the districts of party leaders. Few remember the “Contract With America” and it is seldom mentioned.”
Congress forgot about business. Everything became personal. It’s gotten worse and few GOP speakers have thrived. Gingrich fell under revelations that he was nailing a House committee staff member while publicly criticizing President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and then fell afoul of the Ethics Committee for profiteering.
Republican leaders went from bad to worse. Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert after federal prosecutors said Hastert molested young boys as a wrestling coach. The judge who sent Hastert to federal prison called him “a serial child molester.”
Hastert remains the highest-ranking Americal official to serve in prison: At least, for the moment.
I left Capitol Hill in 1987 after serving as chief of staff for one new member before returning to Lujan to become his Special Assistant on the House Science and Technology Committee. I became Division Vice President for Political Programs for the National Association of Realtors. One of my responsibilities was to oversee the association’s Political Action Committee.
In 1994, I walked away from politics and returned to journalism. It was not a coincidence that I also joined Alcoholics Anonymous that same year.