GLIMPSES INTO MY YEARS WITH
CONGRESSMAN BOB POAGE
W. R. "Bob" Poage's primary goal in Congress was to represent the people of the Eleventh Congressional District of Texas. There was nothing pretentious about him. He did not aspire to higher office, and I have heard he turned down an offer from President Kennedy to be the Secretary of Agriculture. He was proud to be from Central Texas, and he was very proud that his father was, as he put it, "an old time cattleman" who had driven herds of cattle up the Chisholm Trail.
He had a law degree from Baylor University but actually practiced law only a few years, entering politics early in his career. He was elected to both the House and Senate of the Texas Legislature before being elected to Congress in 1936.
He was a politician and a good one, especially keeping in touch with his Central Texas constituency. However, he was not the best politician in dealing with fellow Members of Congress. For example, he had little patience with Members of the House Agriculture Committee who cared little about the Committee's work and focused on their work on other Committees. He would say that the work of the Agriculture Committee was, in itself, a fulltime job, and a Member should not be on multiple committees.
I hasten to add that he was always fair and honest with his Colleagues in Congress. However, that occasionally meant telling them things they might not like to hear.
Party politics never seemed important to him. In fact, I believe he may have been too removed from the Democratic Leadership in the House. He never worried about the Democratic strategy on legislative issues. He simply did what he thought was the right thing. Nevertheless, he was very loyal to the Democratic Party-even though he did not share some of its more liberal beliefs.
Some of my friends tell me that, if Mr. Poage were in Congress today, he would surely switch to the Republican Party. I do not agree. He recognized that the Democratic Party had helped him obtain public office at both the State and Federal levels. He would never give serious thought to abandoning the Democratic Party. The election of Senator Obama in November of 2008 made me think of this party loyalty issue. There is no doubt that Senator Obama is far more liberal than was Mr. Poage, but I have no doubt Mr. Poage would have voted for him.
There is no doubt that his House and Senate colleagues, from both parties, had great respect for his integrity and his knowledge of agricultural issues. Yet he was not one to alter his principles in order to be more popular.
In 1975, his Democratic colleagues, by a slim three-vote margin, declined to reappoint him to a fifth term as Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. I am convinced that he could have remained Chairman of the Committee had he compromised some of his strongly held views that were not in line with those of his House Democratic colleagues-particularly the growing number of younger and more liberal House members.
However, he was not about to compromise on his views to win any election. Not Bob Poage.
I was extremely fortunate to work with this remarkable man. It was a great stroke of luck, and my timing happened to be just right.
A few weeks before I graduated from Baylor in 1963 with a degree in political science and history, it dawned on me that I had not mapped out a career. Having an interest in politics, I decided to visit my Congressman, Bob Poage. He had a district office in the Waco Post Office building at 8th and Franklin. I simply went to that office one day without prior notice. As luck would have it, one of the staffers was Coke Mills, with whom I was acquainted. He told me that he thought there might be an opening for a patronage job in Washington.
In those days, senior Members of Congress were given slots to fill in the Congressional Post Offices, the Capitol Hill Police Force, and Doorkeeper's office. These were known as Patronage. As a senior member of the majority party (Democrat), Mr. Poage could fill two or three positions with people he chose to employ. His practice was to name young men from his Congressional District to fill those positions-usually for a summer. This would provide a wonderful Washington experience for those lucky enough to be selected by the Congressman. After we worked a full shift in those jobs, we would rush over to the Poage Congressional office and work until it closed for the day. The pay came from the House Post Office, the Doorkeeper of the House or the Capitol Hill Police force. So Mr. Poage had access to 10 to 20 hours of free labor in his office each week, and we had a marvelous chance to see Washington and to learn about Congress by working with the Congressman and his staff.
While I was talking to Coke, Mr. Poage raced into his office, having given a speech at a local high school. I quickly spoke to him about a job, but he gave no commitment whatsoever. However, I quickly called everyone I knew who were acquainted with Mr. Poage, asking them to put in a word for me with the Congressman.
It worked. In June of 1963, I went to Washington for the very first time to work the summer in Mr. Poage's office in a patronage position with the House Post Office. Since my father worked for the railroad affiliate, he obtained a free ticket for me to take the train to Washington. I rode the Missouri Pacific train from Palestine, Texas, to St. Louis. Then I took the Baltimore and Ohio train to Washington. I still remember getting off the train at Union Station in Washington, after riding it for two days. When I exited the station, I saw the Capitol Dome for the first time and I was struck with awe. So began my wonderful experience of being closely associated with Mr. Poage until his death in January of 1987 at the age of 88.
I started at the very bottom rung of his staff and rose to the top slots in both his Congressional office and at the House Agriculture Committee, which Mr. Poage chaired from 1967 to 1975.
I have wonderful memories of those days., and here I share some of those experiences with you. They remain vivid in my memory even though many years have passed since the 1960s and 1970s. The incidents I relate are funny. Others are touching. My intent here is not to identify those in these events. In many cases, I changed names and disguised the precise dates. Those details are unimportant. But these events tell a great deal about Bob Poage. Indeed, they describe another side of this legendary legislator, a very human side.
These memories are a means of describing a complicated and unique man, whom I was honored to serve with great admiration and affection. All that I accomplished in my long career in Washington, I owe in some way to Mr. Poage. I encourage you to learn more about Mr. Poage, in hopes you too will appreciate this man who accomplished so much legislatively for his District in Texas and for rural America in general.
First, I invite you to read the following article I wrote with two veteran Agriculture Committee press aides, L. T. "Tex" Easley and Bernard Brenner, just before Mr. Poage left Congress at the end of the 95th Congress. This article gives a good summary of many of Mr. Poage's numerous landmark legislative achievements during his 42 years in the House of Representatives.
I hope you enjoy my recollections, and in the process, come to appreciate this wonderful and remarkable man.