Farewell to the departed: Political players who died in ’14

    Before we hurtle into the 24/7 politics of 2015 – the next news cycle will surely begin and end within the span of this paragraph — let’s stop the clock to acknowledge the political players who departed in 2014.

    They all wrote something on history’s pages, if only fleetingly — and, in a few cases, consequentially. In alphabetical order, with age at death: 

    Ruben Askew, 85. Believe it or not, there was a time when Florida was a role model for enlightened governance. This was during the ’70s Askew era. A populist Democratic governor, he taxed corporate profits, eased local property taxes, protected the coastal environment, pioneered ethics reform, put blacks in top state jobs for the first time. A Harvard study called him one of the 10 best state leaders of the century, up there with Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey and Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Too bad he bombed as an ’84 presidential candidate.

    Herman Badillo, 85. America’s first Puerto Rican-born congressman served four terms and became the Zelig of New York City politics. He was seemingly everywhere, changing his political stripes along the way, morphing from liberal Democrat on Capitol Hill to conservative Republican in the employ of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He ticked off a lot of people – he ran unsuccessfully for mayor six times – but his life arc, from impoverished orphan to big-time player, was American Dream material.

    James Brady, 73. President Reagan’s first press secretary was in the wrong place at the wrong time when John Hinckley Jr. did his deed. Paralyzed for life, Brady became the symbol of America’s need for gun reform. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is still in business, battling the gun industry lobby. The Brady Bil, signed into law 20 years ago, mandating a five-day waiting period and background checks on most handgun purchases, was at least some justice for Jim Brady’s suffering.

    Ed Brooke, 95. He died three days into the new year, but I’m including him anyway – because Brooke, a moderate Republican and the first black ever elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote (in Massachusetts, 1966) wrote this in his ’07 memoir: “The polarization of Congress; the decline of civility; and the rise of attack politics in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the early years of the new century are a blot on our political system and a disservice to the American people. I do not see any signs of a return to civility, and I can only look back on my time in the Senate as a golden era that I pray will come again.”

    Phil Crane, 84. He’s the answer to the political trivia question, “Who finished fifth in the 1980 Iowa Republican caucuses, way behind Ronald Reagan?” OK, so he bombed as a presidential candidate. But Crane, an 18-term Illinois congressman, was a conservative pioneer long before conservatism became cool. He landed in Washington, talking low taxes and less government, 11 years before Reagan came to town. He helped found the Heritage Foundation and led the American Conservative Union.

    John Doar, 92. This guy was the Zelig of the civil rights movement. A white Republican in the JFK-LBJ Justice Department, he was on the ground during the ’65 voting rights march in Selma, and he escorted James Merideth in ’62 when the black student integrated the University of Mississippi. Doar also prosecuted the racists who killed three civil rights workers in Mississippi in ’64. A decade later he headed the House legal team that made the case for impeaching Richard Nixon over Watergate. At age 90, he was still practicing law. His 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom was long overdue.

    Bill Frenzel, 86. He was a 10-term fiscally-conservative Republican congressman who rose above party when the national interest required. Imagine that. Vin Weber, a former House Republican colleague, said not long ago, “It’s hard to think of anybody that is a better example of why Congress used to work than Bill Frenzel. He was…a devoted partisan – he worked hard for Republicans to win all his life – and completely respected by those on the other side of the aisle. It’s a combination you just don’t find anymore.”

    David Garth, 84. A New York-based political consultant who worked mostly for Democrats (with some exceptions, like Pennsyvania GOP Senator John Heintz), Garth was an early pioneer of TV campaign ads – but not the slimy attack genre that we loathe today. He preferred to go positive about his own candidates. He packed his ads with facts and figures and text, to the point where columnist Jimmy Breslin complained that Garth’s ads seemed to be “aimed primarily at the deaf.” A colorfully tempestuous guy, he was a model for the colorfully tempestuous political consultant in Robert Redford’s movie The Candidate.

    Jim Jeffords, 80. Much like Ed Brooke, this Vermont senator was increasingly out of sync with his ever-rightward Republican party. The climax came in May 2001 when Jeffords got so fed up with the George W. Bush administration that he switched parties in the 50-50 Senate and put the Democrats in the majority. As a conservative analyst told me at the time, “The Northeastern Republican is an endangered political species. It is increasingly stifling to be a moderate in that party. In that sense, Jeffords isn’t even jumping. He is being pushed.”

    Joe McGinniss, 71. He was the first journalist to pull back the curtain and expose the advertising artifice of a modern presidential campaign – as detailed in his bestseller about the ’68 Nixon bid, The Selling of the President. Today we simply assume that political reporters will reveal the real person behind a candidate’s image. But that kind of coverage has become de rigueur only because McGinniss made it so. What’s amazing, in hindsight, is that the Nixon people allowed McGinniss in the room.

    Marge Roukema, 85. Sometimes people get into politics for tragically personal reasons – for instance, Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband died on a train at the hands of a nut with a gun, thus prompting Carolyn to run for Congress as a gun reformer. Roukema, an 11-term New Jersey Republican congresswoman, had a similar arc. Her 17-year-old son died of leukemia; four years later, she ran successfully, calling for a law that would allow people to leave work for extended periods to care for sick family members. She said, “These are not abstract problems. I know. I’ve been there.” The senior George Bush vetoed such a bill in 1990, but Bill Clinton signed it in 1993.

    William Wilson, 86. It’s probably a stretch to say that the outcome of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race hinged on the candidates’ TV makeup, but this is indisputable: For the all-important first debate, Nixon looked awful – whereas Kennedy looked great, wearing a light facial dusting of Max Factor Creme Puff. That was Wilson’s call. The Kennedy team had hired him because he worked in television and knew a lot about lighting and cameras and makeup. As he worked on the candidate’s face, JFK said to him, “Do you know what you’re doing?” Wilson said, “Yes.” Apparently he was persuasive, because in ’61 he produced JFK’s first press conference – televised live, another innovation in the evolution of presidential politics as theatre.

    And one more: Tony Auth, 72. The Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for The Philadelphia Inquirer – and, near the end, for NewsWorks – chronicled politicians for 41 years (archived here). He and I were friends. He loved Bob Dylan, especially an ’06 song he played for me a few years ago, a song about fatalism, life, loss, and friendship: We live and we die, we know not why / But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.


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