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Congressional Chronicles.

Congressional Chronicles

Anthony S. Pitch. Mino Publications, $12.95. This charming book showcases the outrageous, picaresque, and downright goofy aspects of Congress, but is forced to reach fairly far back in history to come up with most of its congressional oddities. While the foibles of Daniel Webster or the wit of Henry Clay even now prompt smiles, and the outrageous carryings-on of Robert Kerr and Everett Dirksen still evoke some amused recognition in those who remember those bumptious corsairs, color in Congress seems to be a thing of the past. It is difficult to imagine, for example, anecdotes being told in years to come of the antics of Senator Connie Mack of Rep. Steve Gunderson. The pickings in the current crop seem mighty thin. The sparseness of contemporary entries in this book supports that suspicion.

But perhaps it is premature to write Congress off as just a collection of humorless bean counters who hang around for years, croching behind a battlement of blandness. Perhaps Pitch, in recounting the tale of Rep. John Randolph striding onto the floor of the House followed by his hunting dogs, migh have mentioned Speaker Tom Foley's amiable dog Alice or Les Aspin's hound Junket. While neither modern lawmaker would have the debonair arrogance of Randolph to enter the chamber with a pack of snarling mastiffs, quirkiness in Congress may not be entirely dead.

Rowdiness and excessive disputation may be less common now than when Charles Sumner was beaten to within an inch of his life by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, but it was not too long ago that Rep. John Burton made an obscene Sicilian gesture to a Republican in the course of a debate. I doubt, by the way, that any member of the House and Senate 100 years ago would have donned a plastic pig snout to denounce a public works project, as Rep. Silvio Conte did not too long ago.

My main quibble with this highly entertaining little book is that it leans a little too heavily on the early examples of congressional eccentricity and overlooks people like the diabolically acerbic Eugene McCarthy or that irrepressible phrasemaker Alan Simpson. Even Bob Dole, perhaps the only major political figure with a well-honed sense of irony, is passed over.

Two books published within the past 20 years provide enough delicious scurrility to obviate the need for delving back into a Congress that no longer exists. They are Bobby Baker's Wheeling and Dealing and William "Fishbait" Miller's Fisbait. More elegant and respectable but no less full of wonderful anecdotes about the Congress of the recent past is Eugene McCarthy's Up 'Til Now. But the book whose congressional vignettes have never been surpassed and probably never will be is Harry McPherson's A Political Education. If Mr. Pitch ever gets to a second edition, he would do well to consult these sources that went untapped in his current effort.

I think it is important that books on the current wit and wisdom of Congress not become more and more slender. One explanation for the low esteem into which Congress has fallen is that its members present themselves to the voters as choirboys who then fall embarrassingly short of that image and come off sounding like hypocrites. A little less buttoned-down, blow-dried primness might prompt voters to cut members of Congress a little more slack.
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Author:Baker, Ross K.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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