During one of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young’s visits to the editorial board of my newspaper, a colleague asked him what he thought, issues aside, of then-President Bill Clinton as a retail politician.
Young’s face broke into a wide grin and his eyes twinkled.
“He’s better than good,” the congressman said. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
That was a high compliment, coming from an opposition politician who was no slouch himself at connecting with voters and colleagues.
It wasn’t Young’s death Friday, at the age of 82, that brought the moment back to my mind. It has been there throughout as a poignant example — and wistful memory — of how politics once was and ought still to be.
Young’s capacity to like something about a political opponent was integral to his ability to work with the other side on issues — among them, notably, the environment — where they might agree.
In a cosmic coincidence, former House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington died the same day. Young, a Republican, and Foley, a Democrat, represented a vanishing breed of practical politicians who did not think they had to be mean to be effective.
Without Young, MacDill Air Force Base might have been closed, there would have no modern Bay Pines VA Medical Center, the University of South Florida would be years behind where it is and there would be no lifesaving C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program.
There was nothing wrong with that kind of “pork.” None of it was a bridge to nowhere.
Young was a consummate congressman. It’s a pity he never became minority leader or speaker of the House. I can’t imagine that he would have let himself be bullied, like the present speaker, into bringing his country to the brink of disaster.
Young displayed his independence of the daemonic forces currently corrupting his party when he cast one of the few Republican votes against dismantling the Clean Water Act. One of his first votes in Congress, more than 40 years before, had been for that law.
He had seen first-hand, in a massive oil spill in Tampa Bay, the need for protecting our elemental resources. In 1970, during his last session in the Florida Senate, he was a principal sponsor of what was the nation’s strictest oil pollution legislation.
Upon moving to Washington — having led the entire Republican ticket in Pinellas that year — he kept pressure on the Congress, President Nixon and the Florida Cabinet to halt and deauthorize the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, an unmourned boondoggle.
There was a time — Young was a part of it — when a Tallahassee reporter looking for an environmental viewpoint was likely searching for a Republican. It was the so-called Golden Age of Florida Politics, at the dawn of Florida’s two-party system, when the better members of both made a virtue of finding common ground when they could and of disagreeing civilly when they could not.
There was much less money in politics then; it had not become a blood sport. Gerrymandering hadn’t been refined into a precise, computer-driven science. Members formed lasting friendships across party lines.
When Young announced Oct. 9 that he intended to retire, acknowledging that politics had turned for the worse with Tea Party influence, it coincided with reports of a poll indicating that he and 16 other popular Republicans would be at risk in the next election.
That owed to the crisis, manufactured by fanatic colleagues, which he had supported and recanted, and which he would have voted to end had he been able.
His health was the primary motivation.
But one of the Democratic fund-raising agencies that pester me daily rashly hailed his intention as a defeat for the Tea Party.
Not so. The loss of any moderate Republican is a victory for the Tea Party, leaving it more potent as a paralyzing force within the Republican ranks. That faction prefers to lose an office rather than elect anyone reasonable — as it did when it purged Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and other moderates in primaries.
Young’s district is unlikely to elect a radical in the ensuing special election, but the Republicans need to take care that they don’t nominate one. With large flocks lining up to run in both parties, the lack of a runoff primary — repealed eight years ago — is an ominous factor. A fringe candidate could be nominated with a puny fraction of the vote.
His party’s voters would honor Young by insuring that it doesn’t happen.