If Congress had 435 Tillie Fowlers

Posted: Mar 08, 2005 12:00 AM

If politics is a question of balance, then Tillie Fowler was the answer.

 The mourning for the just-deceased former congresswoman from Florida has reached deep into the halls of the U.S. Capitol and far across America. The 62-year-old Fowler was a political superhero; an antidote to the epidemic cynicism that surrounds the political process.

 Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina was particularly devastated by the loss. Fowler once served with Dole at the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. Their days together made them close, and no wonder. Fowler's grace, strength, humor and integrity could only have reminded Dole of her own husband, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Like him, Fowler believed in the aptness of the political process as an extension of the worthiness of people.

 Both Bob Dole and Fowler could laugh at themselves. I recall during the presidential campaign of 1996 that Dole appeared at a Republican National Convention private meeting and right away declared with a grin, "We're really going to get our butts kicked, aren't we?" He was referring to the upcoming election with Bill Clinton. And yet during the campaign, Dole displayed a fiery zeal in fighting for his beliefs.

 Fowler displayed that same admirable sense of proportion. Like Bob Dole, she could rise up in righteous anger when she believed that government could -- and should -- help right a wrong.

 I knew Tillie Fowler, but that is no claim to glory. If you were involved in the early days of the Republican Party's ascendance in the Sun Belt during the early 1990s, you were bound to know her.

 She came from a prominent political family in Georgia. Her father, Culver Kidd, was a Georgia state senator. Her brother Rusty also made a name for himself. Neither outdistanced the lady of the family.

 She won a congressional seat in north Florida in 1992, heading to Washington one term prior to the proclaimed "Republican Revolution." That's significant because the GOP's "Contract With America" appeared in 1994. And the only critical part of that contract that never became law was mandatory term limits for those in the House or Representatives and the Senate.

 Never mind. Tillie Fowler imposed term limits on herself. She went into office having proclaimed that "Eight is Enough" -- that she would voluntarily leave Congress after serving four terms.

 When the election of 2000 rolled around, Fowler was nothing less than the most powerful woman in Congress. Her political career was posed to ignite the afterburners and soar into the stratosphere of national media renown.

 No matter. She refused to turn back on her pledge. She walked away from the power and the glory.

 Isn't that always the way? The one person we wish would renege on a promise in order to benefit society as a whole is the same person who won't back away from a political pledge. As lengthy as the roll of Fowler's impressive accomplishments runs, nothing illustrates her political worthiness like this walking away from the limelight. And that's what makes this more than just another eulogy for a colleague now gone. Her example is important to all Americans. We can see by it that politicians can be what politicians should be. And that integrity is as integrity does.

 Widespread support for forced term limits seems to be faltering. A single but significant example happened in Texas, where Republicans removed support for term limits from their state party platform.

 The reasons for the distaste for mandatory term limits aren't always cynical or selfish. For example, calls for voluntary term limits have won more responses from Republicans than from Democrats, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis. Many Republicans fear that if they step down, they are doing little more than unilaterally handing over power to the Democrats.

 The best one can say is that each case is different. If we could truly trust our elected officials to make the wise choice when the time comes, then laws regulating term limits would be completely unnecessary.

 In short, if Congress had 435 Tillie Fowlers and the Senate 100 of her kind, we could all rest easy -- as a deserving Tillie Fowler rests today.