They don’t make members of Congress like Ken Gray any more. In today’s political climate, it would be next to impossible to make him up.
More than a quarter century after he left the House, Gray died on July 12 at age 89. And he was still remembered with bemused fondness by those old-timers at the Capitol who lament that the place isn’t populated with as many “characters” as it used to be.
Gray represented the rural southern reaches of Illinois from 1955 through 1974, when he first departed because of a heart condition and signs of an impending scandal. The Democrat returned a decade later, and served another two terms before retiring for good. That run dovetailed with my first years in Washington, and the boldness of his legislative, interpersonal and sartorial styles made him stand out as a tonic in a House where the members were becoming increasingly cautious in their policy proposals, circumspect in their dealings with the other party and downright boring in their presentation.
Gray was the opposite on all counts. His career was a vivid reminder of the time when the bipartisan pursuit of parochial project spending could be practiced with unbridled enthusiasm as well as success. He confronted critics of the pork barrel culture head on. “Pass the Plate,” a favorite comeback line, was the title of his authorized biography. Though he never had more power than a subcommittee chairmanship at what was then called the Public Works Committee, during his tenure Gray directed an estimated $7 billion in federal spending on a spider’s web of interstate highways, a maximum security prison, medical complexes, a regional postal sorting facility, recreation areas, a mammoth lake to hold drinking water, and half a dozen locks and dams to a district late to realize that its coal was no longer king.
He also was a driving force behind transforming Union Station into the National Visitors’ Center in time for the 1976 bicentennial — though the project was so plagued by cost overruns, structural problems and tourist indifference that the building was essentially closed for almost a decade before the current railroad and retail complex first opened.
Earmarking lived on for years after Gray’s departure, but since he left almost no member has matched his reputation for unabashed flamboyance.
He arrived in Congress with the thick, dark and slicked-back coiffure of a rockabilly star. He departed sporting a voluminous perm of tight blondish curls that captured the last days of disco.
He careened around town in a collection of fast cars. (One really was a pink Cadillac.) He threw a series of legendary late-night parties for a combustible mix of Republicans and Democrats, lobbyists and young female staffers aboard the houseboat he called his Washington home — and which he incidentally christened Roll Call. Gray introduced one of his secretaries, a former stewardess named Elizabeth Ray who conceded she couldn’t type, to House Administration Chairman Wayne Hays. (In one of the most prominent Hill sex scandals of the 1970s, the Ohio Democrat was forced to resign after admitting he’d put her on the committee payroll at $14,000 a year so she could be his mistress.)
He took to calling total strangers “champ” or “sport” — including this reporter, who came face to face with the congressman for the first time in 1987, after happening into a Rayburn Building elevator one evening and interrupting his passionate embrace of a curvaceous companion.
Kenneth James Gray never attended college, and after tours in Europe and North Africa as an Army helicopter pilot he managed the airfield in his hometown of West Frankfort and launched a nonprofit group that trained guide dogs for the blind. He also learned the skills that shaped his outsized political style by working as a used car salesman, auctioneer and magician.
His penchant for showmanship first came to national attention in 1956, during an otherwise routine speech warning how that year’s highway bill was being picked apart by amendments. To make the point, he plucked the flowers, one by one, off a dozen roses — and then, when only stems were left, turned with a flourish and somehow produced a fully formed bouquet.
By the time he returned to the House in the 1980s, Gray had taught himself the intricacies of congressional procedure, and that combined with his auctioneer’s facility with a gavel made him the leadership’s choice to preside over more floor debates than any other member.
That visibility gave viewers in the early C-SPAN years several opportunities a week to critique Gray’s extraordinary wardrobe. He sported suit fabrics with eye-crossing patterns, or of bright white; blazers and patent-leather shoes in colors not found in nature; enormous butterfly bow ties; pocket squares in contrasting silk that surged upward from his breast pocket.
But he dressed in uncharacteristically somber earth tones for his last moments on the House floor in October 1988. He presided for much of the 100th Congress’ final day and then stood in the well while a dozen colleagues (more Republicans than Democrats, as it turned out) paid tribute to his self-deprecating sense of humor, his commitment to parliamentary fair play and his undeniable love for the people and the work of Congress.
“Leaving here makes me feel like the boy who stumped his toe,” he said. “I’m too big to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.”
Like so much else about him, that’s not a sentiment you hear much from members any more.
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