A courtly congressman

AFTER 10 years in Washington, I was only vaguely aware of this man, through an occasional story in the Washington Post. I'll call him Congressman Bud. I first encountered him at a briefing session for newly elected congressmen. I was there as legislative assistant to such a ``freshman,'' as they are called. Bud was there to brief us on congressional decorum. He seemed like a man from another era. Sunday blue suit, courtly manner, gray hair parted meticulously near the middle, bespeaking a desire to be proper rather than to be noticed. I remember thinking how much he resembled my grandfather, who wore a suit even to baseball games on hot summer afternoons.

Bud talked about the civilities that House members traditionally extend to one another, such as addressing each other as ``my esteemed colleague.'' (A disputatious House member once declared that he held a colleague in ``minimum high esteem.'') He counseled that such lubricants eased the flow of business in what could easily become a raucous and unwieldy chamber.

But I had come to Congress for combat, not courtesies. As I sat in that ornate committee room, I envisioned myself drafting bold new legislation, working craftily behind the scenes, writing speeches that would bring the chamber to its feet. Bud seemed quaintly irrelevant to the grand crusades that I imagined ahead.

I didn't see much of him in the months that followed. (Nor did I see much of the crusades. Freshman congressmen keep their mouths shut. Their staffs write speeches for the Congressional Record and answer the mail.) Then, one Friday afternoon I strolled over to a garage near Capitol Hill to pick up my car, which was in for repairs.

It was one of those sweltering summer days that, before air conditioning, caused the Capitol to shut down until fall. Exhaust fumes from commuters, blending with the oppressive heat, turned the foot of the Hill into a basin of misery.

The garage almost seemed to have congealed out of the desultory air. From the street, one easily might have thought it abandoned. The office area was not much different. The owner was a short, bald man who at times seemed preoccupied with some unspoken grievance or hurt.

On this day, the man's mood was especially dark. He shuffled papers on his stand-up metal desk, totally ignoring me. For at least five minutes, he refused to acknowledge my presence. Was he irked, I wondered, that I had brought him an ancient Volkswagen that taxed his powers of repair?

Or was it something deeper? He was an intelligent man, at least 20 years my senior, with wife and family to support. Yet my pay was probably equal to his, if not greater, for work that to him must have seemed a lark. (In truth my work was probably less useful than his in the overall scheme of things.)

It isn't fair, I thought, how easy my generation has had it, compared with his. In Washington and other cities awash with overpaid young professionals, this must be painfully evident to people like this mechanic, and perhaps gallingly so. Whether he was actually thinking along these lines, of course I will never know. I tend to doubt it. But somehow, his silence evoked these feelings in me.

A car drove up to the gas pump, what might once have been called a ``late-model sedan.'' The garage owner dropped his papers and hurried out the door. It was Congressman Bud.

Bud slid out of the driver's seat and greeted the man in his usual courteous fashion. Despite the sweltering heat, his white shirt was unwrinkled, and his tie was pulled properly to his neck. Bud's car was spotless. He probably kept a whisk broom and a chamois cloth in the glove compartment, the way my grandfather did.

They exchanged a few pleasantries while the man pumped the gas. Then he was gone.

When the garage owner returned to his cluttered office, he was suddenly cordial, expansive almost. ``Wasn't that Congressman Bud?'' I asked, fishing for an explanation.

``That's him,'' the man said. Then, without further prompting, he recounted the kindnesses that Congressman Bud had accorded him over the years.

``One day he says to me, `Joe, your daughter is going to be starting college soon, isn't that right?' I told him yes, that was right. So then he says, `Well, she's going to be needing a job to help her pay the tuition. Why don't you have her come by my office?''

Jobs are precious commodities on Capitol Hill. When bestowed as favors, it is generally to sons and daughters of key constituents or of House colleagues (who are not allowed to put family members on their own staffs). To give one to the daughter of a garage mechanic, one who isn't even a constituent, is not a daily occurrence.

Simply thinking about it seemed to dispel whatever had been eating at Joe.

I have since learned a few other things about Congressman Bud. He appears religiously for roll calls, reads the bills on which he votes (not all do), takes not a penny from political-action committees, corporate or otherwise.

We don't hear much about such quiet rectitude on the evening news. But it is people like Congressmen Bud who provide the institutional glue that holds the House of Representatives - and other organizations - together.

That episode at the garage made me see my ambitions in a different light. Those who speak most passionately for ``the People,'' whether from a left- or right-wing view, often seem too busy for the daily kindnesses that help people in particular. We disparage the old-style ward politicians. Yet they excelled in precisely such assistance.

``He's the finest man I have ever known,'' Joe said of Congressman Bud. I wonder how many of our ideologues, so sure they know what is right, impress in that manner the people they encounter when the cameras are still.

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