Posted: 10:00 am Wednesday, December 5th, 2012
By Jamie Dupree
It has been almost 54 years since my parents arrived on Capitol Hill as fresh-faced staffers in the Congress; time, though is taking a toll, as their friends and the members of Congress from their era keep falling in what has become an ominous march in recent years.
This week, former Rep. Jack Brooks, a cigar-chomping, tough-talking Democrat from Texas was the latest to be checked off by the Great Scorer of Life; Brooks was first elected in 1952 and was one of the few dozen lawmakers to span the time that my parents served on Capitol Hill and later my time as a reporter in the halls of Congress.
It was in his later years that Brooks gave me one of my best quotes ever as a reporter when he was the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the early 1990s, a line that explains a lot about the Congress.
Asked in the hallway why he seemed to be taking an extra, almost unnecessary pound of political flesh from Republicans in the House on a certain issue, Brooks peered at me through his glasses and the smoke from his cigar, and made a simple case for ultimate political victory.
“Sometimes you just gotta f**k ’em for the sake of f**king ’em,” he said, the smile curling up on the sides of his mouth, signaling pure personal pleasure at his observation.
Brooks was one of the few southern Democrats who helped Presidents Kennedy and Johnson push ahead with civil rights legislation in the Congress, and his irascible tone left many with a bad taste in their mouth over the years.
Basically, Brooks excelled at hardball politics.
One of the best quotes that I read in the many obituaries about Brooks was from the New York Times, which reported that supposedly he was “one of the few men L.B.J. was ever afraid of.”
Asked at a news conference once whether he had cleared some of his Judiciary Committee legislative plans with the other party, Brooks couldn’t resist.
“Generally, I have discussed some of these with the Republican leadership,” he said, pausing for effect as many in the crowd chuckled.
“Generally,” he said to even more laughter.
“It’s always a pleasure to see Republican and Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee working together,” Brooks once said on the House floor.
“It warms your heart; but it makes you read carefully,” he added playfully.
The news of Brooks’ death came almost a week to the day after one of the best friends of my mother and father had passed away in Syracuse, New York, a guy who had been central to almost every great story of their early years on Capitol Hill.
John Frances Aloysius Mahoney, as he liked to refer to himself in a third-person style like Bob Dole, was more than an early campaign aide for Kennedy or Johnson, he was also a storyteller whom you could listen to for days about the Congress.
“I feel like I’ve known your father all my life,” Mahoney said about his friendship with my dad.
It was Mahoney who showed up overserved at an early party my father held at his basement apartment near the Capitol; instead of hitting the button for my father’s place, Mahoney and his friends repeatedly punched the one for the Congressman who lived upstairs.
It was a recipe for disaster, as Texas Congressman John Dowdy was already asleep, and didn’t need to be awakened and repeatedly disturbed by some drunk young bucks.
“I don’t know any John Baloney!” Dowdy thundered as people kept asking for Mahoney instead of my father.
A few hours later, Mahoney had to be held back repeatedly by fellow party-goers as he tried to storm up the stairs to Dowdy’s front door.
“Hey Congressman!” he shouted. “I’m John Baloney!”
Like Jack Brooks, Dowdy was elected to Congress in 1952; the Texas Democrat at times befriended my father, who lived below him, and had just started working on Capitol Hill as a young staffer.
“Why don’t you boys come up and have hot dogs and listen to Eisenhower on the radio,” Dowdy said one time to my dad and his brother.
While Mahoney may not have made the best impression on Dowdy, the Irishmen from Syracuse and my father became fast friends in the halls of Congress and stayed that way to the end.
The stories were legendary of Mahoney’s days – and nights – of fun. Often he would summon a Red Cab to take him to his Virginia home; one time the cabbie sat at the bar with him, quaffing a beer.
Mahoney asked the bartender to get the cabbie another beer while Mahoney continued to play ‘Liars Poker’ with my father and others, prompting a note of concern from the bartender.
“Aren’t you the one who is supposed to be driving?” asked Joe the Bartender, who had gotten his job through Mahoney.
Without missing a beat, the young cabbie responded.
“They don’t send any rookies to pick up John Mahoney,” he said flatly.
It was Mahoney who was coming back from lunch on a November day in 1963, when my father came racing down the street from our Capitol Hill home, yelling out the breaking news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
“I remember the state of panic,” Mahoney said over 50 years later, noting that Speaker John McCormack seemed stunned as the Secret Service hauled him away.
“I saw him; he was absolutely ashen, I mean, he was filled with white panic in his face,” Mahoney said of the Speaker on that day.
As Mahoney and my father ran inside the Cannon House Office Building to check the teletype wire for news on November 22, 1963, Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas was actually in the Dallas motorcade when Kennedy was killed.
You can see Brooks in that famous photo where Lyndon Johnson is taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, with Jacqueline Kennedy standing next to the new President, her husband’s body soon to be aboard the plane for one final journey back to Washington, D.C.
Brooks was a larger than life character, which we unfortunately don’t have that much in either party in the Congress anymore, something that is noted repeatedly by the greying friends of my parents who are still around Washington, D.C.
Maybe it’s a bit of the “good ole days” kind of view, but my father and Mahoney did believe that things were better back in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Congress.
Fighting a losing battle on his health in recent years, Mahoney repeatedly took time to tell me a littany of stories about Capitol Hill – for example, Mahoney’s campaign work for Democrats in Congress, which one time included a trunk full of money.
“That was just accepted then; nobody wrote checks, it was all in cash,” my father’s friend said with his trademark twinkle in his eye.
In 1962, Mahoney went on a Congressional campaign tour of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois with Ted Henshaw, who would later become Clerk of the House.
“The luggage was in the back seat,” Mahoney remembered with a laugh, because “the trunk was so full of bags of money.”
“Things were quite different,” he added in an understatement.
My father and my sister drove to Syracuse last week for Mahoney’s funeral, which was part social and part political gathering.
They waited two hours in line at the wake and gabbed with all kinds of people who, like them, had been touched by Mahoney, who was described by the Syracuse Post-Standard as an “Educator, storyteller and activist for civil rights and peace.”
We still tell the story in our family about attending Mahoney’s wedding during the Gas Crisis in the early 1970’s; at the time, we lived in Detroit, and the only way to get to Syracuse was to drive through Canada, where they had gasoline.
But on the Sunday after the wedding, we needed more gas to get back to the Canadian border and nothing was open; some of Mahoney’s political friends in Syracuse pulled a few strings, and a service station magically opened just for my father and our car so we could get back home.
The Mahoney funeral, as sad as it was, was still a good trip for my father, a moment to reconnect with people from his past in Washington, D.C.
But as we grapple with health issues in our own family right now, it’s hard not to look out on the tableau that was my parents’ group of friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill, and realize that they continue to fade away, one by one.
In a 1994 letter exchange of letters, Mahoney and my father were already looking back, my dad paraphrasing a poem by Dorothy Parker, “The Veteran,” to express his feelings:
When I was young and bold and strong,
Oh, right was right and wrong was wrong!
My banner high, my flag unfurled,
I rode out to right the world…
And now I’m old and gray and sad
And truth is woven in a crazy plaid.
“Indeed, Jim, the world you and I grew up in is no more,” Mahoney responded.
“I guess we all thought both we and our world would go on forever, sublime and uninterrupted.”
Jack Brooks and John Mahoney couldn’t have been any different, but in many ways, they were very similar – both were political animals and loved the Congress.
They both will be missed.