Friday, January 13, 2012

"Once you come back here, your troubles will begin."

Posted By on Fri, Jan 13, 2012 at 8:50 AM

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Missoula. He occasionally writes op-ed columns, and recently submitted this one on an old Mike Mansfield letter and the current rancor in Washington, D.C.:

A small piece of Montana’s history, a letter written 65 years ago, has recently resurfaced.

The stationary's letterhead reads: “Congress of the United States, U.S. House of Representatives.” The date is typed as April 10, 1946. The letter is to John J. Holmes and is signed by Mike Mansfield. Holmes was a popular Montana politician, our State Auditor throughout most of the 1930s and ‘40s. Mansfield was a member of the U.S. House then, representing the state’s 17 western counties. He would serve Montana for 35 years in both the House and Senate.

This brief, two-paragraph gem of a letter reveals much about the two correspondents: their personal friendship, the short time frame of election campaigns back then, and the perils of election year predictions. It is also a reminder of the speed with which Montanans could correspond with their member of Congress those six decades ago.

The Mansfield letter is in response to one he received from Holmes written only six days earlier. Holmes had written to inform Mansfield of his decision to be a candidate for the U.S. House in the Eastern Congressional District with the primary election less than three months away and the general election only four months after that.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana.

Mike predicts his friend’s victory with these words: “I am delighted that you have decided to become a candidate for Congress. I have no doubt but that you will be both nominated and elected.”

He next offers a blunt but frank caution: “…but I want to warn you to enjoy yourself while you can because once you come back here, your troubles will begin. No matter what you do, you will be damned by somebody and praised by few…Aspirins don’t relieve your headaches in Washington…However, you will find the job interesting and I can assure you from personal experience, that the eight-hour day is out of operation in this job and furthermore, we do not come under the 18½¢ increase or forty-hour week.”

Mansfield concluded with this bit of light-heartedness: “While we cannot guarantee you a house here, I’ll put in an application for a park bench for you…Will you let us know if you prefer a bench in green or orange? Our aim is always to satisfy.” Although not known for his humor, at least in his later years, Mansfield, born in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, raised as an orphan in Great Falls, and growing up as a miner in Butte, obviously had a dry wit, which shines through in this letter to his good friend.

Although Mansfield predicted victory, Holmes was defeated in the general election by Republican Wesley D’Ewart who served four terms until 1954. Thus Holmes, widely popular as State Auditor, could not transfer that support to his run for Congress.

I can relate from my nine congressional terms in the U.S. House that much of Mansfield’s thoughts still hold true, however, the camaraderie of the Mansfield days are much diminished. Rancor and accusations have replaced civility and compromise. Members of Congress in Mike’s day seldom came back to their districts, staying in D.C. working with and enjoying the company of other members regardless of party affiliation. Today’s Congress is back home every Thursday and doesn’t return to D.C. until the next Tuesday. This change was demanded by the public, but it has backfired. Members of Congress should work on Capitol Hill from Monday through Friday. The occasional long weekend recesses are when the members of the Congress can travel home to talk with their constituents.

Congress was once held in relatively high esteem by the people and with a return to mutual friendship and compromise, it might once again.

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