Why the Death Notice of Congressman Barber Conable Caught this Historian's AttentionNews at Home
Last month, America lost one of its great statesmen. Barber B. Conable, a 20-year Republican congressman from New York and former president of the World Bank, died at the age of 81.
I first met Barber Conable in 1994, as he enjoyed retirement in his hometown of Alexander, New York, a village southwest of Rochester. I was a graduate student researching a dissertation on Gerald Ford's presidency, and since Conable had been Ford's close friend in Congress and during Ford's years in the White House, I knew that he could provide valuable insights. Conable invited me to his home, which turned out to be a veritable museum of American history.
His study contained a priceless collection of Iroquois masks and tomahawks. I noticed framed, meticulous pencil sketches on some walls, and he explained that they were just doodles that he had made while a congressman.
Just doodles? They looked beautiful, and they had been enough to impress Ronald Reagan. The president had heard about the congressman's drawings, and asked to have some. Conable sent a few samples to the White House. In return, the president sent a page of his own sketches, on White House stationery, to the congressman. "Barber," the president wrote. "These are just doodles. Yours are art."
When I interviewed Conable, I learned that he respected and liked Ford the most among the six presidents whom he worked with, a line that ran from Lyndon Johnson to George H. W. Bush. Ford's combination of fiscal and personal integrity appealed to Conable, and Ford's down-to-earth humanity furnished the precise antidote to the imperial presidency that the nation needed at the time.
"Most presidents think they know it all," Conable regretted. "That's partly because they're elected, and they know they're anointed by God and the American people to do their thing. Jerry knew he wasn't." To see that quality in a president, Conable reflected, was "very, very refreshing."
The afternoon of our interview was a snowy winter day, and after we finished, I expected to leave to face the cold outside. Instead, Conable asked, "Won't you stay for dinner?" I was flattered and delighted.
When I met Barber Conable that day, I felt like he had always been my friend. As I got to talk to him more over the years, I grew to understand that it was so much like him to welcome me, a perfect stranger, into his home, invite me to stay for dinner, and make me feel at ease in his company.
Conable embodied the virtues of small-town America. He was born in Warsaw, New York, just five miles from Alexander, and went to Warsaw High School. When he graduated from Cornell University, World War II was raging, and he enlisted as a Marine and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. While in the Pacific, he learned to speak Japanese well enough that later, during his political career, he could converse with Japanese dignitaries who visited Washington.
After the war, he received a degree from Cornell Law School, editing the law review for two years and graduating at the top of his class. He hung out a shingle in Batavia, a small city midway between Buffalo and Rochester, but interrupted his law practice to rejoin the Marines and fight in Korea.
In 1962, Conable's political career began when he was elected to the New York State Senate. Two years later, he ran for Congress, and was elected despite the overwhelming Republican repudiation that year, which included Barry Goldwater's drubbing in the presidential race.
Conable quickly earned the respect of his Capitol Hill colleagues and was later voted the "most respected" member of Congress. He was a man of unimpeachable probity, and established an iron-clad rule of accepting no political donations more than $50. The principle at once astounded and frustrated colleagues, who took in sums far more generous, but Conable stood by it.
During the Watergate scandal, Conable's integrity became a welcome relief for a disillusioned and dispirited nation. Conable had been a loyal Nixon supporter, but the president's behavior left him feeling betrayed. The scandal's denouement came when Nixon released transcripts revealing that he had indeed tried to obstruct the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in. "This," Conable said, "is the 'smoking gun.' " Reporters immediately seized on the phrase, which entered our lexicon and became an immortal line from this dark chapter in American history.
Conable never forgave Nixon for misleading the nation. When Conable became president of the World Bank, Nixon sent him long, hand-written letters offering advice on international affairs. Conable never answered them, and refused to attend Nixon's funeral.
Conable belonged to an unlucky generation of Republicans, always laboring in the House minority, and Watergate made them unluckier. After the scandal, support for the GOP plummeted, and by late 1974 just 18 percent of voters nationwide said that they belonged to the party. Republican moderates seemed an especially endangered species. As Conable observed, "The suburban middle-class people, who are humiliated by their support of Richard Nixon, are either going Democratic or going underground." The resulting breach helped conservatives surge to great strength within the GOP. Through it all, Conable remained a voice for moderation, and in 1976 he steadfastly supported Gerald Ford for a full term, despite a thundering primary challenge from Ronald Reagan, in which the former governor almost snatched the nomination from the incumbent president.
By the late 1970s, Conable became the ranking Republican on the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Although he had studied medieval history in college and had no background in economics or finance, he was a quick study, and he became an expert on the nation's tax structure. In 1981, he steered Reagan's 25-percent tax cut through the committee. Conable also put the "k" in "401k." As a way to protect the pensions of Eastman Kodak employees, a major constituency in his district, Conable amended section 401 of the Internal Revenue Code. What Conable helped to create became a staple retirement plan for millions of Americans.
Conable may have also planted the seed for one of the most well-known political partnerships of recent years. While George Bush was vice president, Conable had him over for dinner. That evening, Conable also invited a congressman whom he wanted Bush to meet, Dick Cheney of Wyoming. Bush seemed to hit it off with Cheney and later, as president, he asked the congressman to serve as his defense secretary. As the nation now knows, Bush's eldest son grew to like and respect Cheney, too.
Relinquishing power was just as important as exercising it, Conable believed, and in 1984, after ten terms in the House, he announced his retirement. "The vitality of the system depends on new people and new ideas," he explained.
But one year after Conable left Congress, President Reagan appointed him to head the World Bank. As president of the institution, he tried to redirect its priorities on fighting world poverty, and he pressed for innovations such as developing the Polish economy as it underwent reform. He also reduced the Bank's bureaucracy while nearly doubling its capital budget. In 1991, he retired when his term ended.
His retirement was unusually active. He sat on the corporate boards of the New York Stock Exchange, Pfizer, and the American International Group, and he served as a trustee for his alma mater, Cornell. He chaired the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. His travels took him frequently to Washington, New York, and overseas.
For all his activity and travel, Conable remained true to his hometown roots. While in Congress, Conable had returned home once a week, meeting friends every Saturday morning at a hardware store in Batavia for coffee and donuts.
The klatch kept him well grounded, allowing him to see constituents and hear their thoughts. The ritual spanned his two decades-plus in the House and at the World Bank, and he carried it on during his retirement.
In Washington, Conable witnessed history and communed with political giants, from presidents to prime ministers. Yet once his career was over, he disdained the idea of staying there, clutching the remnants of his power to lobby and peddle causes. That was mercenary, he thought, a misuse of the power and influence that the people had entrusted in him. He preferred to return home, spend time with family and friends, give to the community, and lead a life that was, in many respects, ordinary.
Conable and his wife, Charlotte, took pleasure in looking after their property in Alexander. In their large back yard, he planted a variety of trees, and during one of my visits to his home, he drove me out on a small tractor to show them. I could name only a handful; he pointed out each one, identifying it, probably two dozen different types in all.
But I'll always remember my first visit with Barber Conable, for it marked the beginning of a warm friendship. As I left his home that winter day, I saw the former congressman take out a snow shovel and begin removing snow from his walkway. There was something simple yet grand in seeing him shovel snow, a statesman who could slip away from the power and prestige of national government and tend to chores at home, much like George Washington did at Mount Vernon during his retirement.
Like Washington, Barber Conable was a model public servant and private citizen.
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Jim Fleming - 1/19/2004
I enjoyed your comments on Barber Conable. I thought you'd like to know that I have just finished a biography on him. It is entitled Window on Congress: A Congressional Biography of Barber B. Conable Jr and will be published by the University of Rochester Press in the spring. More information about the book is available at http://www.urpress.com
Jim Fleming, Political Science Profesor, RIT
Jim Fleming - 1/19/2004
I enjoyed your comments on Barber Conable. I thought you'd like to know I have just finished a biography on him. It is entitled Window on Congress: A Congressional Biography of Barber B. Conable Jr. It will published by the University of Rochester Press in the spring. You can find more information about the book at http://www.urpress.com
Political Science Professor, RIT
Josh Greenland - 12/14/2003
But Ralph, I thought you said you were a Republican!
Ralph E. Luker - 12/13/2003
VJ - 12/12/2003
One of the last of a breed, the respectable small town Republican Congressman. They absolutely don't come the same anymore. We've got to wonder why in an age of cant, rage against reason, and rigid ideologically driven 'cookie-cutter campaigns' we'd probably not even be able to nuture such a talent in the Republican party. They'd just never make it into the leadership ranks. He stood for everything the Republicans no longer can say that they do: fiscal rectitude, 'open hand' dealings, bi-partisanship, comity, culture, reason and learning, and finally, honest accountable government.
To see just how far we have fallen from this bygone age, I don't recall a single obit or mention of his passing, or a comment from any current Republican of note holding office today. Anyone of the current crop would probably greet you with a shot gun, a lawsuit, or a rank of security guards should you dare deem them fit for a friendly interview in their plush K Street digs or secluded well guarded estates some decades hence.
Stanley Kutler - 12/10/2003
Conable was one of my favorite Watergate interviews. Such Republicans had a special depository of contempt for what Nixon had done. What I liked best is that Conable refused to submit to hypocrisy as evidenced by his refusal to acknowledge Nixon's kibbitizing advice on world affairs while Conable headed the World Bank. Good piece.