A Barber in the House
The late Barber Conable's recently published journals are a rare gem in the world of political memoirs.
Editing a deceased friend’s journal is to rehear his voice—not, one hopes, crying, “No, don’t cut that!”
Barber Conable (as a boy he hated his forename) grew up reciting Browning and Gray with his father, the county judge, as they milked the cows. The Conables were paragons of that splendid blend of culture and agriculture that once characterized—and still does, sometimes—the muck-spattered gentry of Upstate New York.
Barber majored in medieval history and wrote poetry at Cornell. As a Marine, he went ashore at Iwo Jima, thinking, “My God, I’m going to be killed on my father’s birthday,” but came through the battle with nary a scratch. After the war, he practiced law, composed farces for the Rotary Club, and was elected to Congress in the Goldwater landslide year of 1964.
By force of intellect and personality Conable quickly became the dominant Republican on the Ways and Means Committee; in time he would be voted by his peers the most respected member of the House of Representatives.
To the bemusement of his colleagues, and the irritation of House minority leader Gerald Ford, Conable refused any campaign contribution greater than $50, even in the Watergate election of 1974, when feisty labor-financed opponent Midge Costanza outspent him nearly two-to-one. Conable won anyway.
As a kid I passed out handbills for Midge, a working-class ethnic Democrat of a type as extinct today as are moderate Republicans of the Conable stripe. Yet the squishy term “moderate” does not do justice to Barber’s blend of frugality, institutional reformism, Burned-Over District social liberalism, solicitude for Main Street, constitutional federalism, and strong preference for local and voluntaristic solutions rather than top-down programs. Above all, there was Conable’s profound attachment to his place, and his fear “about the rootlessness of our people.”
Barber Conable retired from Congress after the 1984 election, though his homecoming was deferred for a lustrum by his appointment as president of the World Bank. (Knowing my own philosophical bent, he told me, grinning, that he was “the decentralist World Bank president.”)
Rejecting numerous offers to whore out as a lobbyist, Conable came home to Genesee County in 1991, and I cherished a dozen years of his friendship until his death in 2003. Our politics differed, but so what? Friendship must always trump politics. Always, always, always.
When in 2018 Conable’s daughter Jane asked if I’d like to read his congressional journal, comprising half a million or so dictated words, I jumped at the chance like Fanne Foxe plunging into the Tidal Basin. This May, the University Press of Kansas is bringing out The Congressional Journal of Barber B. Conable Jr.
The few published diaries by members of Congress tend to be barely disguised campaign documents, self-aggrandizing fairy tales advertising the author’s purity of heart. By contrast, Conable, whose instructions limited access to his journal until most of those mentioned therein had adjourned to Valhalla, is often hard on himself and frank about the shortcomings of his colleagues.
He had condign contempt for the crooks (Wayne Hays, D-OH), the bullies (Phil Burton, D-CA), and the frivolous pretty boys (Phil Crane, R-IL), yet his esteem knew no partisan distinctions, enveloping liberal Democrats such as Abner Mikva (IL), Jim Corman (CA), and Richard Bolling (MO). He spotted Ways and Means backbencher George H.W. Bush as a comer and would serve as booster and confidant to Bush into the vice presidential years, though they would break over the matter of Conable’s independence.
His portrait of Ways and Means chairman Wilbur Mills (D-AR) is a study in legislative craftsmanship and personal dissolution. Conable comes to see John Anderson (IL), his one-time partner in the GOP’s moderate cohort, as a sanctimonious blowhard, while he praises Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican with whom he often disagreed, as a man of substance. You can hear Conable sigh deeply whenever his frenetic congressional neighbor Jack Kemp (R-NY) enters a scene.
His depiction of Gerald Ford is affectionate if exasperated, and while he would damn Ford’s predecessor (“I hate the bastard”), Conable approved of Richard Nixon’s federalist spasms (especially revenue sharing) and his diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China.
Conable dismissed the Watergate break-in and cover-up as stupid fraternity house hijinks; to him the heart of the case for impeachment was Nixon’s use of the IRS and FBI against political opponents. When he tells Wilbur Mills that he’s working his way through the Judiciary Committee’s volumes of evidence in the impeachment case, the chairman is astonished; who but an idealistic Boy Scout would bother to read that stuff before making up his mind?
The last time I saw Barber Conable he likened his legislative accomplishments to footprints on a sandy beach, washed away by the tide. But his journal, like the sterling example of his life, is evidence that character and wisdom are not necessarily incompatible with service in Congress.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.