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Bob Matsui: Wonk, Fighter, and All-Around Great Guy

Some years ago, I had the good fortune (or misfortune) of appearing on the cover of a now-defunct glossy magazine called Washington Dossier, wearing a fancy tuxedo while dancing with an elegant model (who was about 6 inches taller than me).

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the office of Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.) asking me to come by for a meeting on some issue he was dealing with on the Ways and Means Committee. I dutifully showed up, to find that it was a pretext for Bob to give me a nicely framed picture with the Dossier cover and the inside picture. [IMGCAP(1)]

I treasure that picture — but I treasure even more the photograph I received later. It was taken by one of Bob’s staffers, showing Matsui giving me the gift, beaming about the surprise he’d managed to pull off.

That was vintage Bob Matsui: a delight in surprising one of his friends, a warmth and goodness that is rare in any group of people but even rarer at the top reaches of rough-and-tumble politics. Weeks after the fact, I am still having trouble coming to grips with the reality that he is gone.

I first met Bob and his wife, Doris, soon after he was elected to the House in 1978. Bob drew people to him because he was so warm, open, unpretentious and bright. I shared with him a love of baseball and of politics. He and Doris and my wife and I became good friends, sharing news of our kids growing up, dissecting current events, talking about the Orioles and sometimes going to games.

Unlike many people in elite levels of politics, television, law or business, Bob was not self-absorbed. The line, “But enough about me. What do you think of me?” applies to many (as each of us could name) but it did not apply to him. He was genuinely interested in others, and took genuine delight in their achievements.

Through the years, I watched Bob up close as his career in Congress soared. He first shot to national prominence when he led the effort to get reparations for the Japanese-Americans who had been forced into internment camps during World War II. Of course, he had been among them, spending the first few years of his life in such a camp. He and his House colleague Norm Mineta (D-Calif.) handled that issue with determination and drive — but without bitterness or recrimination. The process became a template for reconciliation. It also showed Bob as a proud American, not cynical or bitter but simply wanting to see his country make amends for a huge mistake.

That alone would have made a terrific career. But Bob made his mark in so many more areas. In trade, he was a model bipartisan, willing often to take on his own party as he fought for the free-trade ideals he believed in, looking to find common ground with allies such as Reps. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and David Dreier (R-Calif.), and looking as well to find common ground on issues such as labor and environmental standards as a way of broadening the free-trade coalition. (He was disappointed to find that the current House was not interested in broadening coalitions beyond the majority of the majority party.)

Bob became a world-class expert on welfare and Social Security. He was a policy wonk who loved politics, a gentle man who had a fierce attachment to his values and policy views, a partisan who also wanted to work with those across the aisle, and a man who could use ferocious rhetoric to defend the downtrodden but who seemed to have no enemies, even among those he excoriated.

I have had the privilege of having many members of the House and Senate as friends, spanning both parties and all viewpoints. They have included many currently serving or recently retired, along with such now-deceased leaders as Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.), and superstars of public service like Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

I think what all my friends in Congress have shared is their love and respect for the institution, their joy of serving, and their delight in politics. That was true, in spades, of Bob. He embodied all that is right about politics and the legislative process, all that is great about America. As partisan as he grew in the ever-more-partisan House, he refused to divide the world into friends and enemies. He carried himself with class. His dismay with the House led him to take the brutal job as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he did dutifully and well over the past two years, without any of the sleaze now so common in elections.

During the beautiful memorial service for him in Statuary Hall, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) provided the take-home phrase: She hoped that during the coming years, as we face nasty and brutish partisan politics and debate, that we could pause from time to time for a “Matsui Moment.”

Everybody in the hall understood what she meant, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who had the class to allow the memorial service to be held in that hallowed and rarely used space. Despite the tension of recent years, the Speaker noted that Bob Matsui never failed to come across the aisle to say hello to him, to be pleasant and forthcoming. I hope he, and his colleagues, will remember the idea of the Matsui Moment and apply it. God knows such moments have been in short supply.

Bob knew about his disease for some months. He and Doris decided that he was not going to change his life or curb his energy in face of it. Rather, he was going to carry on with what he believed in and what he was dedicated to do. That included finishing his responsibilities with the DCCC and preparing for his crucial role as point man for the Democrats on Social Security. Up to the last, he followed what was going on in the world and worked on a strategy for Social Security.

My family and I got back from our holiday late on the evening of Jan. 1. I opened the mail, and went right for the famous Matsui Christmas card, which was especially delightful this year, with its gorgeous pictures showcasing Bob and Doris’ beautiful pride and joy, granddaughter Anna. The next morning, I checked my e-mail and saw the news about his death — and literally fell off my chair.

I am glad that Bob will be replaced by Doris, who, like Lindy Boggs, will come to Congress as a remarkable talent from day one. But I miss my friend and miss even more what he brought to politics, to Congress and to America.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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