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A Civilian’s Return

Wolff Heading to Hill for Civil Air Patrol Celebration

Television personality, powerful consultant and former Rep. Lester Wolff (D-N.Y.) will return to Capitol Hill on Thursday in recognition of an occupation he held before all the rest: sub chaser.

Long before he was in Congress, Wolff served as a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary to the Air Force. He will appear at a panel discussion as a part of the CAP’s annual Legislative Day. [IMGCAP(1)]

“It was a time when all our aviation was in other parts of the world,” said Wolff, 88. “Gill Robb Wilson [pilot and then-editor of the New York Herald Tribune], a bunch of others and I got together to try to put our flying experience together to run cover for ships.”

Formally established on Dec. 1, 1941, the CAP initially flew only escort and reconnaissance flights, but the group’s mission expanded when German U-boats began preying on American ships in coastal waters. CAP planes then started carrying bombs and depth charges to attack the submarines. As the group’s Web site proudly states, after the war, one German commander said the express reason for the withdrawal of U-boats from coastal waters was “those damned little red and yellow airplanes,” referring to the signature colors for CAP aircrafts.

“It was just a volunteer service. We started with nothing, our own planes and tools,” Wolff recalled. “Now it’s got 500 airplanes and over 50,000 members — a good portion of them young people too. Last year we did 95 percent of the search and rescue missions in the U.S.”

Since WWII, the CAP’s role has changed drastically. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security and became involved in border patrol, counter-drug operations and disaster relief. But Wolff is most proud of the organization for its educational programs that provide aviation experience to more than 27,000 people age 12 to 21. [IMGCAP(2)]

“From virtually anywhere in the country a person can pick up a phone and find a wing nearby,” said Wolff, adding with excitement, “You could be in a plane in a few months, could be flying by this time next year.”

That includes Members of Congress. In 1967 Wolff started a Congressional Squadron so that Members, their staff and executive branch officials could join in CAP efforts. Wolff took a special pride in commanding the squadron.

“I had Barry Goldwater under my command,” he added, referring to the conservative former Senator from Arizona and former Republican presidential nominee. “That’s something for a liberal Democrat.”

Wolff’s involvement in the CAP characterizes what could be described as a career in non-elected public service. Since losing his Congressional seat in New York’s 6th district in 1980 — “my unceremonious departure,” Wolff calls it — he has remained extremely involved in political affairs.

“Very frankly, I’ve never felt a desire to return to public service — not as much in a legislative sense,” Wolff said. “But I felt there was a lot more I could do not limited by Congress, or more specifically, by my activities in Congress.”

Wolff has been involved with a number of organizations, including the Honest Ballot Association, the International Trade and Development Agency and the Pacific Community Institute, the latter of which he serves as president.

He has remained especially involved in East-Asian affairs, an area that he gathered experience on and interest in while he served as chairman of the House Asian Affairs Committee. He lectures regularly in Asia and has been a key figure in the interactions between China, Taiwan and the U.S. In 2001, Wolff was the chief judge on the council that awarded the World Peace Prize to Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu.

“I have a foot in the area,” Wolff said. “I’ve been trying to act — I wouldn’t say as a middleman — but I’ve been trying to bring everyone together.”

Wolff also hosts “Ask Congress,” a talk-show series that previously aired on WHUT, Howard University’s public television station, and hundreds of other PBS affiliates. (For the new season the show is being switched to a new “Webcasting” format.)

“It’s been on the air since 1967,” Wolff noted. “Each week we get one or two Members — and it’s totally nonpartisan — and ask them questions of the moment.”

Despite his continued involvement in political affairs, Wolff has no regrets about leaving Congress.

“I found Congress changing,” he explained. “It became an arena of conflict rather than one of cooperation, and it has degenerated ever since.”

The Civil Air Patrol’s annual Legislative Day will take place Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Room 325 of the Russell Senate Office Building.

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