A memorial celebration was held last night in the Ways & Means Committee hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building honoring the memory of former Congressman Guy VanderJagt of Michigan.
Guy Vander Jagt may not be a name familiar to you, but his was a familiar, and beloved name in Washington.
While serving his district in Western Michigan, Guy was the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee for 18 years - a record for serving as the head of any of the six major party national committees.
He was known as a brilliant orator. He would give an entire 40 minute speech - with soaring images and grand constructs - without even so much as a note.
A favorite trick was to memorize the name of everyone at the head table at a major political event. Without, again, so much as glancing at a note, Guy would welcome every person - husbands and wives - by first and last name. About half-way through the performance the audience would realize what he was doing and begin to cheer more and more loudly with the successful mention of each succeeding name.
The event last night was Standing Room Only. In a place where bitter enemies routinely refer to each other as "My friend, the gentleman from Upper Iguana," there was genuine affection for VanderJagt. The Vice President, who served in the House from 1978 until he was confirmed as Secretary of Defense in 1989, called Guy "A very, very good man."
The reach of this very, very good man among his colleagues was demonstrated by two of the speakers: The current Chairman of Ways & Means, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) who gave the welcoming remarks and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) who offered the opening prayer.
Former Ways & Means Committee staffer Ken Keis said, "Guy was special to everyone. But what made him unique was this: Everyone was unique to Guy."
That was true. VanderJagt criss-crossed the country dozens of times per year, recruiting candidates, doing fundraising events for new candidates, and adding support for colleagues running for re-election.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), current chairman of the NRCC said that VanderJagt created the modern political committee: The fundraising, the use of technology, the focus on campaigns, and the focus of resources.
But it was those speeches. Those wonderful speeches.
No matter how many times you heard the one about the "dirty, dusty boys marching down the road" having freed a small town in Belgium from the clutch of the German Army in World War II; or the one about the B-17 crew member who would not leave the belly gunner who was stuck in his turret after the rest of the crew had bailed out, "Well, Sergeant, it looks like we're going to ride this down together" you didn't for a moment think you were hearing a reprise of an old speech.
It was like listening to a really great recording of a Beethoven symphony. You know how the second movement of the Fifth goes; that you can hum along with it, makes it all the more enjoyable.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich said this about listening to a VanderJagt speech:
"You weren't watching a great speaker on stage. You were feeling the speech - the great truths - in your heart."
I managed Guy VanderJagt into retirement, losing a primary in 1992. On election night a we won by 25 votes in a city we should have carried by a 2-1 ratio.
His chief of staff and I led Guy, his wife, Carol, and his daughter, Ginny, to a side room off the ballroom where the "victory" celebration was being held, and we told them the bad news: He was going to lose.
Guy thanked us for our hard work and asked me to set up an interview with a TV reporter who was doing live cut-ins from the site.
The running totals still had VanderJagt ahead and the reporter started the live shot by congratulating him on winning another victory. Guy looked into the camera and said that the numbers, in fact, indicated he was going to lose and, before the counting was even completed, endorsed his opponent, Pete Hoekstra.
No recounts. No rancor. No bitterness. Guy VanderJagt endorsed his opponent.
There are not enough Guy VanderJagts in the world. I'm very sorry we lost this one.
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