I am saddened to learn of the passing of my former colleague, Congressman Tom Bliley (R-VA), who died yesterday at age 91.
A mortician by profession (don't bother with the jokes—he had heard them all), Bliley served as Richmond's mayor before winning election to the House in 1980. When I was elected in 1996, he was chairman of the committee to which I had hoped to gain appointment: the House Commerce Committee, which was Congress' oldest (and arguably most powerful) committee.
As chairman, he ran a tight ship, and he showed little interest in the uninformed contributions of his junior members. During committee hearings, after the chairman and a few senior members made their introductory remarks, Bliley made it known he preferred that his junior members (e.g., me) submit their comments in writing.
He also didn't value independent spirits from his GOP ranks when it came to Virginia's parochial interests. Before he signed off on my joining the Commerce Committee, he called me on his cell phone during Freshman Orientation Week while having his car serviced at his neighborhood "Jiffy Lube."
"Newt [Speaker Newt Gingrich] wants my blessing on you joining my committee," he said in his southern drawl. However, before he consented, the chairman demanded my assurance on a vital question: "If I let you on Commerce, are you gonna give me any trouble over 'The Golden Weed'?
The Golden Weed?
"Well, Mr. Chairman," I began, "as a former prosecutor and a former state court judge, I'm afraid I have a problem with legalizing marijuana. It leads to—"
"I'm not talkin' about marijuana!" he snorted. "I want to make sure you won't give me any troubles with tobacco! I don't need another pain in the ass Californian on my committee like Henry Waxman [a liberal Democrat from Los Angeles]." As the chairman railed about Waxman's ongoing anti-tobacco crusade, I surmised that he assumed everyone west of Atlanta wanted to treat tobacco as if it were crack cocaine.
I assured him that I had libertarian values on The Golden Weed, and the deal was done.
After I left Congress, the chairman took me to lunch. While we dined, a bevy of lobbyists made a pilgrimage to our table to pay homage to the senior lawmaker, with each one topping the last in pouring out effusive praise for Bliley's brilliance and eminence. When the last of them left, I asked Chairman Tom if he ever grew tired of all of this brown-nosing.
He smiled. "Rogan," he told me, "I always try and remember that whenever all of these people line up to kiss my ass, it ain't my ass that they're really kissin'. It's the chair that my ass sits in that they're really kissin'!
Very sound advice for anyone holding a position of power or responsibility.
Rest in peace, Mr. Chairman. It was a pleasure serving with you.