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Window on Congress

Window on Congress: A Congressional Biography of Barber B. Conable, Jr.

James S. Fleming
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    Window on Congress
    Book Description:

    Barber B. Conable Jr. served as a Republican congressman from western New York from 1965 to 1985. He is recognized as one of the most respected members of the House of Representatives in recent years. This biography explores his twenty-year congressional career, focusing on his remarkable educational abilities as a gifted teacher-legislator. Using excerpts from Conable's private journal, his newsletters and news columns, and from personal interviews, James S. Fleming has crafted a book that enables readers to appreciate why Conable was held in high regard by his constituents, his colleagues, the press, and congressional scholars. Political scientist Charles O. Jones expressed the opinion of many when he observed that "Barber Conable was just about everybody's idea of what a congressman should be." Recognizing the importance of Conable's western New York heritage, James Fleming traces Conable's story from his childhood in Warsaw, New York, to his election to the historic Eighty-ninth Congress of 1965-1966. Fleming's chronicle of Conable's subsequent legislative career offers a window on Congress and on an historic period in American history. As the fourth-ranking Republican leader in the House, Conable played a critical role in the Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. As the ranking Republican leader of the Ways and Means Committee, he was a key contributor to the tax legislation passed during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. The highlight of his legislative career was his crucial work in solving the 1983 Social Security crisis. Fleming concludes the biography with a look at Conable's service as World Bank President and his retirement to his beloved western New York home. In his foreword the renowned congressional scholar, Richard F. Fenno Jr. writes, "Barber Conable was an especially admirable United States Representative; and Jim Fleming has written an especially admirable congressional biography. This book is, therefore, a special gift."

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-675-2
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Photographs
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. List of Doodles
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Richard F. Fenno Jr.

    Members of the United States House of Representatives come in many varieties. Few biographies have been written about them, however. And fewer still have been especially penetrating or praiseworthy. When a first-rate congressional biography comes along, therefore, it is a special gift to people who think about the practice of politics in America. This is all the more true when the book illuminates a distinctive kind of representative. In this case, the distinction lies in the analytical sophistication and the explanatory skills of one who was also a “master teacher.” Barber B. Conable Jr. of New York was as highly...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  7. Chapter 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    Barber B. Conable Jr., a third-generation western New Yorker, represented a Rochester-area district of western New York in Congress from 1965 to 1985. Though Conable spent his entire twenty-year congressional career in the minority, his colleagues voted him the “most respected member” of the House from either party in 1984. Conable was praised at the time by his Republican colleague, Guy Vander Jagt from Michigan, as a “statesman-legislator,” as someone who had “dedicated his talents not to political advantage but to the country. Few members, if any,” Vander Jagt said, “can walk in Barber’s footsteps.” In achieving this honor, Conable...

  8. Chapter 2 Roots in Western New York
    (pp. 14-32)

    Searching for the forces that shaped Barber Conable’s life prior to his arrival in Congress in 1965, we begin with his growing up in western New York. Always conscious of his ancestral history and western New York identity, Conable reaffirmed his roots with a humorous anecdote he told a group of Rochester community leaders in 1990 on a trip back to the city after he retired from Congress and was president of the World Bank.

    I used to come home 40 times a year and spend a lot of my time up in Rochester, and it was, for me, a...

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. Chapter 3 Becoming a Lawyer and Politician
    (pp. 33-51)

    After World War II, Conable returned to Cornell to carry on his family’s tradition in the legal profession—something he had intended to do before the interruption of the war. His parents had always felt that education in law was the best education they could give their sons. Bill and John had both graduated from the Cornell Law School in 1940. Now, in September 1946, after spending the previous six months with the U.S. occupational forces in Japan, it was Conable’s turn to take his place studying law at Cornell.¹

    The strong reputation Conable’s brothers had set as students at...

  11. Chapter 4 Mr. Conable Goes to Albany
    (pp. 52-74)

    Arriving in Albany as a state senator in January 1963—in a scene reminiscent of Frank Capra’s classic 1939 filmMr. Smith Goes to Washington—the newly elected Senator Conable found the “Albany scene a confusing one for a newcomer.” But he was determined, as he wrote a friend back home, “to give the job all I’ve got.”¹

    On seeing the chamber of the New York Senate for the first time, an exuberant Barber Conable asked the security guard stationed outside the door: “Is this the Senate chamber?”

    “Yeah,” the guard replied.

    “Well, do you mind if I look around?...

  12. Chapter 5 A Freshman in the Eighty-Ninth Congress
    (pp. 75-107)

    On January 4, 1965, with Charlotte looking on from the House gallery, Barber Conable was sworn into the Eighty-ninth Congress, along with 434 other members of the House of Representatives, 295 Democrats and 140 Republicans. Constitutionally, Conable’s first term in Congress had actually begun at noon on January 3. But since the third fell on Sunday, Conable and the other members were not formally sworn into office until the next day, following the election of the Speaker, John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, who defeated the newly elected Republican leader, Gerald R. Ford of Michigan.¹

    Conable’s efforts during his first term...

  13. Chapter 6 Appointment to the Ways and Means Committee
    (pp. 108-129)

    With his freshman term behind him, Conable began his second term in January 1967. The Ninetieth Congress was an important time for Conable, as his appointment to the influential Ways and Means Committee would significantly shape the duration of his congressional career. The Ninetieth Congress would also be an important time in the nation’s history, with the growing war in Vietnam and domestic conflict that would force Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection to the presidency in 1968.

    “The first few weeks of any new Congress are almost totally given up to the rather occult process of organizing the committees...

  14. Chapter 7 Support for Richard Nixon
    (pp. 130-155)

    At his inauguration on January 20, 1969, Richard Milhous Nixon set the stage for the first four years of his presidency. As a long-time, conservative critic of big government, Nixon warned that the country was fast “approaching the limits on what government alone could do” and he promised to “reach beyond government” for private and local solutions to public problems. On the international stage, Nixon cast himself as a “peace-maker,” and pledged “to help lead the world . . . out of the valley of turmoil [in Vietnam and elsewhere] and onto [the] high ground of peace.”¹

    Six weeks later...

  15. Chapter 8 The Watergate Betrayal
    (pp. 156-178)

    As President Nixon became more and more embroiled in the Watergate scandal, Conable’s support for Nixon began to fade and he tried to distance himself and the Republican Party from Nixon. “The whole issue,” Conable recalled after his retirement from Congress, “was the survival of the Republican Party and how to disengage Nixon from the image of the Republican Party, because we were all tied to him. This is why it was such a terrible experience, because you didn’t have any control over it.”¹

    Conable did not know Nixon well personally, but for four years he had agreed with him...

  16. Chapter 9 Toughest Reelection
    (pp. 179-196)

    Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974 did not end the nightmare of Watergate for Barber Conable. His public identification with Nixon would continue to hound him in his reelection campaign in the fall. After surviving the Johnson landslide in 1964, there had been four easy reelections. Now with the Watergate scandal casting a cloud over all Republican candidates, particularly those with any identification with Nixon, Conable faced the toughest reelection campaign of his career.

    “It’s going to be a rough year for all incumbents, especially Republicans,” Conable told the annual meeting of the Rochester Jaycees in May 1974, “and...

  17. Chapter 10 A Friend in the White House
    (pp. 197-233)

    At the same time Conable was fighting his most difficult campaign battle, he was being summoned to the White House to help his old friend and new president, Gerald Ford, in his selection of a vice president. Under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, ratified in 1967, Ford had the responsibility to nominate a new vice president to the Congress, just as Nixon had invoked the amendment to nominate Ford for the vice presidency after the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew in 1973.

    After attending the Ford presidential swearing-in ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Friday, August 9, Conable...

  18. Chapter 11 Republican Leader of Ways and Means
    (pp. 234-265)

    Conable warned his constituents, however, that they could not assume that President Carter would have an easy time with Congress just because it was run by his political party. “In early maneuvers between the two institutions,” he observed, “there has already been evidence that congressional leaders will not accept his leadership automatically; and he is not about to stand hat in hand, politely waiting until they make up their minds about him. By the emphasis he has put on direct communication with their constituents, he is saying to congressmen, ‘I don’t need you to talk to the public. I just...

  19. Chapter 12 Cutting Taxes
    (pp. 266-308)

    Anxious to explain himself and his new political situation, Conable held his annual luncheon for the Rochester-area press corps on January 14, 1981, one week prior to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. “Most of you see me as just an assignment and not as a human being,” Conable said, reemphasizing a major complaint he had with the press throughout his career. “And I wanted to demonstrate my humanity to you, and one way to do it was over cocktails and food and just talk a little about my job and what I see coming down the pike, to fit myself into a...

  20. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  21. Chapter 13 Saving Social Security
    (pp. 309-338)

    “Social Security faced a very simple problem in the early 1980s: it was going broke fast,” in the words of Paul Light, a political scientist in Conable’s office, who closely followed the details of the crisis and later wrote a book on the subject.

    More money was going out in benefits than was coming in, outstripping taxes by $10 to $15 billion a year. The reserve ratio, a measure of trust fund savings, had dropped to an all-time low and threatened to fall below zero in 1982. At the height of the crisis, Social Security was spending about $3,000 more...

  22. Chapter 14 Concluding a Congressional Career
    (pp. 339-372)

    “I am not seeking reelection in 1984,” Conable announced in a brief one page statement he released to the press in Washington and back home in his district on February 4, 1984. He had hinted as far back as 1978 that he might retire from Congress to pursue other interests. But when his final decision to leave actually came, it was a surprise and disappointment to many of his colleagues and constituents.

    “I have enjoyed my job,” Conable said. It is good to be a participant in interesting events, to have responsibility and the challenge of diversity. Service as a...

  23. Chapter 15 Life After Congress
    (pp. 373-384)

    In February 1986, Conable was settling into his new life back in western New York when he received a surprise phone call from Treasury Secretary James Baker that would radically change his life for the next five years. Conable had known Baker since they worked together on George Bush’s presidential campaign in 1979–80. Conable had also worked closely with Baker on a variety of tax issues when Baker served as President Reagan’s chief of staff in the early 1980s, and then again when they both were members of Reagan’s Presidential Commission on Social Security Reform in 1982–83.


  24. Notes
    (pp. 385-416)
  25. Index
    (pp. 417-429)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 430-431)