Maybe it’s tautological, but maybe, too, it’s worth a reminder that the funerals of politicians are inherently political affairs.
Still, it’s something of a gobsmacking surprise how this week’s services for C.W. Bill Young have become so overtly politicized on so many levels.
When the longest-serving congressman in Florida history, and the longest-tenured Republican in Congress, died on Oct. 18 at age 82, succumbing to complications from a chronic back injury just 10 days after announcing his retirement, he was showered with bipartisan tributes to his kindness, collegiality, collaborative skill — and relative humility for someone with such a strong hand in apportioning half a trillion dollars in military spending every year.
His were all the attributes that Republicans and Democrats alike agree are in woefully short supply in the modern Capitol. They are none of the characteristics that might predictably lead to a partisan catfight near his bier, or a wave of tea party annoyance about how generously Congress is paying its respects.
Or even an obsequious full-page tribute in The Washington Post from the nation’s biggest defense contractor. “His leadership as a great defender of our freedom will always inspire us,” Lockheed Martin gushed, leaving unspoken the irrefutable truth that Young never met a fighter jet he didn’t like.
After a public viewing of his flag-draped casket Wednesday night at the Bill Young Armed Forces Reserve Center in Pinellas Park, Fla., more effusive eulogies are a sure thing Thursday afternoon, when at least 4,000 are expected to attend the funeral at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in neighboring Largo. Speaker John A. Boehner, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who will succeed Young as the top GOP defense appropriator in the House, and former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England are expected to speak.
Dozens of other members are sure to be in the crowd. Three of the most prominent Democrats in Tampa Bay are just as certain to be missing. And therein rests the heart of the two dust-ups sullying the burial.
Calling off Thursday’s House session to accommodate the funeral annoyed some conservatives, who viewed it as improper for the House to be in session for just two days in the week after the government shutdown ended. But that annoyance turned to fury Tuesday, when Boehner made an exception to his post-sequester restrictions on House members’ use of government aircraft. He announced a one-day round-trip to Florida would be made by a military jet big enough to carry all members wanting to attend.
How many take advantage of the offer will determine the size of the plane, which will help determine the cost; rough estimates peg it from $25,000 to $100,000.
At the same time, the congressman’s widow, Beverly Young, issued a fiercely worded “stay away” directive to Charlie Crist, the state’s Republican governor from 2007 through 2010, who is now getting ready to run for his old job in 2014 as a Democrat.
“This e-mail is to officially advise you that your presence at my husband's memorial services will be unacceptable,” she wrote. “I have watched over the years, as Bill had, your transparent attempts to manipulate the political arena. I don't want my husband's memorial service to be another opportunity for that and I will not tolerate anyone turning this into a platform for political gain.”
Crist annoyed Young by talking up the congressman as a potential interim Senate appointee in 2009 — when Mel Martinez resigned to become a lobbyist — even after Young made clear he didn’t want to be considered. The bad blood thickened when Crist considered beginning his political comeback by challenging Young last year, in his bid for a 22nd term.
The other Democrats who were disinvited (with similar missives from Mrs. Young) were the congressman’s final two challengers: St. Petersburg lawyer Jessica Ehrlich, who took 42 percent last fall, and Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who garnered just 34 percent in 2010.
“Bill specifically said he didn't want his memorial service to be a platform for local politicians to work the crowds,” she told Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, singling out those three for exclusion.
The congressman’s widow is no stranger to controversy on Capitol Hill. Beverly Angello was a secretary in Young's Rayburn office in 1985, when he divorced his wife of 36 years and married her eight days later. In 2006, she was removed from the House gallery during President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address because she was wearing a T-shirt reading “Support the Troops” in violation of the no-demonstrations-by-the-spectators rules. And she raised eyebrows among other Hill spouses (and some top brass) by regularly visiting Marines wounded in Iraq with care packages filled with CDs, chewing tobacco, pizzas and whiskey.
And now, her final days on the public stage will be marked by these two contretemps, and then one more.
Although Young’s net worth was only $100,000 — pocket change compared with the $50 million estate of the last member to die in office, Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey — budget hawks and small-government conservatives are destined to raise a fuss when Congress approves the traditional widow’s death benefit, one year’s salary of $174,000.
When the check comes, it will stand as the final appropriations earmark of Young's era.