Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 4:21 am | Overcast 61º


Mark Shields: Rep. David Obey Has Made a Difference

More than most others, the Wisconsin Democrat served by the standard of a political hero

Forty-one years ago last month, as a 30-year-old state legislator, he won a special election in the northern Wisconsin congressional district that had never before in the 20th century sent a Democrat to Washington. One Wisconsin Republican strategist observed prophetically right after David Obey (OH-bee) was declared the upset winner, “He will be strong as horseradish.” So strong indeed that he has won 21 consecutive House elections.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

But Obey has not been a habitual guest on cable’s political talk shows. And he was never a regular on the D.C. social circuit. You will not find him mentioned in the gossip columns. Instead, Obey is that rare and valued elected official who says what he means and who means what he says — without trimming and without truckling.

This means that he and his public achievements are widely unknown to millions of working Americans whom his efforts have touched and whose burdens he has lightened and whose lives he has fought to make more fair. Of the House Appropriations Committee chairman, it can accurately be said that Obey changed Washington more than Washington changed him.

Do you want to know how exceptional he has been? Then please name just one other American politician who has had the candor and the courage to give the same speech on the combustibly contentious Middle East to both the National Jewish Community Relations Council and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League.

Obey, then chairman of the appropriations panel in charge of foreign aid, did just that. Daring to criticize to a Jewish audience the policy of the Likud government in Israel, Obey said, “An honest public servant must tell people not what they want to hear, but the truth.”

After his surprise announcement that he would not seek another term in November, Obey spoke with me: “Public service was the only thing I ever wanted to do. ... You look around, and you see how society is wired. It’s wired to the advantage of the privileged. Public service is the only way to correct it. ... For all my public life, I have stood up for the underdog. There are lots of lobbyists in this town who can stand up for the privileged folks. ... I’m proud I stood up for working-class people.”

To him, every federal budget is a statement of values, ultimately a moral document.

Obey is most proud of the fight he and fellow Reps. Henry Reuss, D-Wis., and Morris Udall, D-Ariz., led, over the opposition of both parties’ leadership, against President Ronald Reagan’s budgets, of the winning battle he and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., waged that led to “the biggest expansion of veterans’ benefits since the original G.I. Bill” and to last year’s economic stimulus package “that everybody loves to hate” and which Obey helped write.

Obey adds, “It’s the unpopular things you do that matter.”

At 71, he is still a Young Turk, energetic and impatient with delay or defeat. As Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., noted and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., agreed, “Dave Obey has lost nothing at all off his fastball.”

Former House leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., says simply: “He knew who he was, what he believed and why he was in Congress. I hate to think of the Congress without Dave Obey.”

Obey has been the consummate legislator, intelligent, harder-working, and more determined and skillful than his colleagues. But he has lived by the standard of a political hero, Hubert Humphrey, who believed “the moral test of government” is how it “treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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