The government shutdown demolition derby continues with only minimal hints of a temporary break in the impasse over how to manage the national economy.
I’m not an economist, but West Texas common sense tells me that playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber isn’t the most effective way to run a national enterprise. Watching the shutdown showdown with the accompanying podium-thumping expressions of righteous indignation conjured up a ghost for me.
Friday would have been Jake Pickle’s 100th birthday. He died in 2005. The legendary congressman loved the House of Representatives, in which he represented the 10th Congressional District from 1963 until he retired in 1995. Pickle — usually referred to with more than a dash of affection as “Jake” — wouldn’t get this Congress. Nor would they get him.
And that would be a source of dismay for him.
Pickle left Big Spring to attend the University of Texas in the 1930s. It was there that John Connally introduced Pickle to Lyndon B. Johnson. And it was at UT that Pickle learned the art of politics. He was an exceptional student.
A consummate retail politician, Pickle made connections and then put them to work. And it worked for him, as his long and successful tenure in the House demonstrates. He was third ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and for all his good ol’ boy manner, he knew the federal budget inside out.
Politicians of Pickle’s generation also understood well that mastery of arcane detail — unlike virtue — isn’t its own reward. He knew how to use those details and used them to represent the people of his district “as best he could,” as he would often say.
Lee Yeakel, now a federal judge, is fond of telling the story of how good Pickle’s best was. Travis County Republicans didn’t get much respect from the rest of the party as it struggled in the 1980s and 1990s. When George H.W. Bush was to be inaugurated as president in 1990, inaugural tickets for the Travis County GOP were low priority for everybody except Pickle.
Once the congressman scored the requested number of inaugural tickets for his Republican constituents, Pickle made a point of having them stop by the office to pick them up. It was an amiable message delivered in the trappings of a Washington office that went with Pickle’s seniority.
Pickle did a lot of things well, but he excelled at delivering amiable messages. His sense of humor could be pointed but was never malicious. He believed in making and keeping friends because Pickle was a cum laude graduate of the “You Never Know” school of politics. You never know when somebody will be in position to help you.
Peggy Pickle, the congressman’s daughter, recalled that John McCormick, who House speaker when Mr. Pickle went to Washington, offered this advice: “’Look around this chamber. You will argue and fight issues on the floor, but the minute you leave the floor you’ll be friends again.’ It was a lesson Jake never forgot.”
There was no politician more different from Pickle than former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Yet, the conservative’s conservative showed up to say: “I’m here for one reason and one reason only. I love Jake Pickle” when the federal building downtown was named in Pickle’s honor.
Times, of course, have changed. An outsized political personality like Pickle would be lost in today’s Twitterverse. He couldn’t tell a story in 140 characters because Pickle enjoyed – and excelled at — up close and personal communication.
And he leveraged his communication style to get things done for the people he represented the best he could.
Wistful observation? Nolo contendre. Yet, things change, and that’s unalterable fact. But it is also unalterable fact that an unyielding, uncompromising Congress doesn’t get anything done.
For all the faults and foibles of the retail politicians who are no longer in vogue, they were about getting something done.
Lawrence Olson, a former Pickle press secretary, theorized that his former boss would assess the current state with sadness. “I believe Mr. Pickle would hang his head a bit, scratch his head a bit and after 30 seconds, he would say, ‘By, God, we need to sit down together and figure this out.”
And I have no doubt that he would.
Happy birthday, Mr. Pickle. We miss you.
About this column
In talking to former Jake Pickle staffer Paul Hilgers about this piece, we discussed timing of publication. Friday is Pickle’s birthday, but Hilgers said running it Saturday wouldn’t hurt anything. The same thought crossed my mind, I replied, but I could hear Pickle asking: “What’s wrong with Sunday?”
When I told Hilgers that I had already committted for a piece for Sunday, he replied: “You know what Mr. Pickle would say? ‘What are you trying to do? Keep me a secret?’”