Full Disclosure: I’ve met J. Brian Smith, author of John Rhodes, Man of the House, a number of times, both professionally and personally. He is not aware I’m writing this review nor, alas, has money changed hands to influence my opinion.
Why read a book about former Congressman John J. Rhodes (R, Arizona)? Why write such a book? For political junkies, this book is an insider’s look at the workings of the government at critical moments in the late 20th century. From Vietnam to Watergate to the opening of relations with China and through the changes in Congress that Senator Orrin Hatch (R. UT) once described as, “This has gotten so vicious that I have to admit it’s the worst I’ve seen in twenty-seven years in the Senate.”
Rhodes served in the House of Representatives from 1953 to 1983. On December 7, 1973, when Gerald Ford was named VP to replace Spiro Agnew, Rhodes was unanimously elected House Minority Leader. Smith was Rhodes’s press secretary and a good friend from 1972 until the Congressman’s death in 2003 and kept a daily record of what went on during those years. What emerges is from careful notes, not memories dimmed by time.
What makes this book important for all Americans is the realization that the bitter, partisan, vituperative, nastiness described by Hatch, above, isn’t the way it has to be. What a difference a generation makes.
When Rhodes was minority leader, he often butted heads with House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. (D, Massachusetts). O’Neill remembers, “John and I have had our squabbles along the line, but… I don’t think thre are any two people closer even though we’re miles apart in our philsophy… he’s just a beautiful fella.”
Smith is a natural story teller. He didn’t try to write the definitive 1200-page biography, but rather provides a rare insider’s look at defining moments in late 20th century political history, as seen from one of the lesser-known but more powerful influencials involved. The section on the challenges Rhodes faced with the Nixon/Watergate scandal is particularly fascinating, revealing again how different were Republican and Democratic Members of Congress just 30 years ago.
Two themes dominate the book. “John J. Rhodes was a rare breed of American politician. He wasn’t flashy. He was not charismatic… He didn’t draw attention to himself through his words, actions, attire, or mannerisms. He kept his ego in check.” And yet, at the same time, he was a “Man of the House,” understanding and using the arcane rules of procedure with skill and fairness.
Smith isn’t trying to nominate Rhodes for sainthood. The Congressman’s temper, his poor oratorical style, his political maneuverings, and his keen political ability to count votes and manipulate the system to his advantage are given equal time. But, on balance, Rhodes comes across as a man of honor and integrity.
Smith quotes Sam Donaldson, “We in the press liked him because he understood our job. He didn’t always agree with what we wrote or said, but he never held a grudge and the welcome mat was always out for reporters. … He would have made a great president. Today there are too few in public life like him.”
Which introduces the second theme. Rhodes was in office when “members [of Congress] treated one another with a level of comity rarely seen today. There were differences, of course; some were based on issues, others on personalities. In general, however, the atmosphere was civil…. Such courtesies were sincere and personal grudge matches rare; today they are the norm.”
Interestingly, Smith is surprising blunt, putting much of the reason for the change onto Newt Gingrich (R, GA), although he doesn’t go into great detail. While he gives Gingrich credit for much of the Republican party’s congressional resurgence, he also writes that his “‘didactic’, ‘combative,’ take-no-prisoners approach hurt people along the way.” Gingrich takes the lion’s share of the blame for the bitterness, partisanship, and personal antagonism that still characterizes much of Washington.
Smith has the knack of making interesting some of the more complex and mind-numbing ways in which the House works. He has a message to promote and a story to tell, and he’s found the right balance and tone to convey both. A very readable, well-written book, John Rhodes, Man of the House is worth the time for those frustrated with the character of so many politicians today, who wonder if it ever was any different.
Edited: WK, PC