“Son, if you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and then vote against ’em, you don’t deserve to be here.” — attributed to U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, c. 1950.
Howard Coble, who represented North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District for 30 years, died late Tuesday evening — Election Night here in Greensboro, as it happened — and a tsunami of respect and even love has flooded the Internet as a consequence.
The News & Record’s news story called Coble a Republican icon who also was “beloved by area Democrats.” The News & Record’s editorial page said that Coble, popular though he was, “wasn’t appreciated enough.” My Facebook feed was filled with tributes from local folks from both parties and no party at all.
Like almost anyone who has lived in the district any length of time, I have my own Howard Coble story to tell, one that goes beyond our interactions as politician and journalist. He was extremely helpful to me when I was job hunting after I took the News & Record buyout in 2009 even though he had no particular reason to be. He got in touch on my behalf with people whose names you see regularly in the paper and on TV. I don’t owe my current jobs to him, but it certainly wasn’t because he wasn’t working for me.
And, yes, even by the standards of Congress, where good constituent service is considered the bare performance minimum for a congresscritter to have a hope of re-election, Coble’s constituent service — or, more precisely, that of the staff he hired and oversaw — was legendary.
But there was a big and important contradiction at the heart of Coble’s politics that all this outpouring overlooked. My friend Lynn Holt-Campbell, who runs an insurance agency in High Point with her husband, wrote something on Facebook that sums it up: ” I met Howard a few times (and yes, he told me to call him “Howard”) … though we were just about polar opposites on a lot of political issues, he was a very, very nice man who deeply loved his state.”
In a nutshell, Coble cultivated a tone of bipartisanship — arguably a necessity for a Republican politician who came of age when Democrats were still in control and who won his second term by only 79 votes — but from 1989 on he voted a very conservative line in Congress; if you look at his record, you’ll see that he was pretty much straight Gingrichite/Tea Party without the idiotic rhetoric. The result was that while he professed to love the people of his district, he voted for many things that hurt most of them.
He supported trade policies that ultimately decimated the 6th District’s predominant industries of furniture and textiles. A former N.C. state revenue secretary, he professed an emphasis on a balanced budget but voted consistently for budget-busting GOP tax cuts that benefited the very wealthy to the detriment of an overwhelming majority of his constituents. He once told me on the record that Congress ought to use its constitutional power of interstate-commerce regulation to ban the use of tax-paid economic incentives to lure employers across state lines, but in all his time in the House he never lifted a finger to do anything about it. And American intellectual-property law, with its gifts to behemoth content creators, became, on his watch as the chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing it, the place where creativity goes to die.
Moreover, a former federal prosecutor, he voted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment even when he knew (or should have known) that not all the elements for a perjury charge were present, but he utterly ignored the far more thoroughly documented war crimes (including torture) and crimes against humanity committed by the Bush administration after 9/11. He cast himself as favoring small government, but there was no big-government overreach he didn’t back, from the PATRIOT Act to warrantless domestic wiretapping. He
never took sometimes declined to take a public position on gay marriage — ostensibly because, as a lifelong bachelor, he felt himself unqualified to do so. In point of fact, during his tenure Congress never had to vote on the issue he voted for a number of anti-gay marriage measures, including the Defense of Marriage Act..
But you have heard little of that these past couple of days. The Howard Coble who voted to screw the middle class and working class, who pushed the interests of big business over small business, who signed on to some of the government’s worst post-9/11 excesses, who consistently pushed tax and economic policies detrimental to the interests of the overwhelming majority of the 6th District’s residents, and who kept his mouth shut while supporting some of the most wild-eyed initiatives of the Gingrich crew and the Tea Party, didn’t make an appearance. The most the News & Record could bestir itself to say was that Coble was “a reliable conservative” who “voted for tax cuts and championed restrictive intellectual property bills beloved by large corporations.” That was it.
The contrast between Coble and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates is striking. They’re all talk, and they’re going nowhere. Coble talked rationally, even in nonpartisan fashion at times, but his votes did and are continuing to do enormous damage to his district and the people of North Carolina on behalf of a few wealthy backers, damage that will long outlive his 30-year tenure in Congress.
In short, I don’t know about drinking our whiskey and screwing our women, but he took our money and voted against us over and over and over again. And that, in the post-Citizens United era, is what being an honest politician has come to mean, and how low the bar has sunk.