‘Man of the House’

Rhodes Biography Recounts Bygone Era

Posted March 7, 2005 at 3:24pm

Former Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) is a symbol of another era on Capitol Hill, when partisan politics was not synonymous with hatred for the other side of the aisle.

In his new book “John Rhodes: Man of the House,” former Rhodes Press Secretary J. Brian Smith chronicles Rhodes’ career in the House. Rhodes was swept into office on President Dwight Eisenhower’s coattails, served as Minority Leader during the Watergate hearings, and retired as one of the most respected men in the House of Representatives, in large part because of his ability to work with members of the Democratic Party.

While he worked for Rhodes, Smith kept “extensive notes” about what happened during the day. As Smith says in the introduction, the quotes used in his book “were recorded at the time they occurred and thus are not subject to the vagaries of memory.”

What does he hope to accomplish by writing this book? “I think that the overarching theme,” Smith said, “beyond being the story of one life, is the way that during

Rhodes’ era he and others in both parties both had a higher level of comity, a spirit of bipartisanship that doesn’t exist today.”

Smith fondly recalls a time before the “Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] era and the bare-knuckle style of getting ahead at any cost.” Rhodes’ longtime nemesis, former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), offered this quote when asked his feelings on the Minority Leader:

“John and I have had our squabbles along the line, but … I don’t think there are any two people who are closer even though we’re miles apart in our philosophy. He’s just a beautiful fella.”

Smith’s book is littered with such quotes, some from Washington powerbrokers, others from ordinary citizens whose lives were touched by Rhodes in some way. While quotes from notable figures such as O’Neill, George Will and Sam Donaldson were accumulated from interviews and columns, Smith also set up a Web site to gather memories about his subject.

Smith cast as wide a net as he could in order to gain insights into Rhodes’ character. “I tried to give it as much publicity as I could; the Arizona papers plugged it, places he went to school, alumni publications, his fraternity. I tried to get as much word of mouth as possible without paying for it.”

Another notable figure who contributed a quote is Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). After reading the book, Hastert quickly agreed to provide a jacket quote. Hastert says that he hopes “every member of Congress will read” “Man of the House.”

Without a doubt, the most important event of Rhodes’ career was serving as leader of the Republican Party during the Watergate hearings. Smith makes a point of explaining in the book that if Republicans had circled the wagons, President Richard Nixon’s impeachment could have been made to look like a purely partisan exercise, something the public would not stand for.

Up until the end it looked as though Nixon might be able to beat the rap. “The best way to describe it,” Smith explained in an interview, “was that [Nixon] decided to stick around. Overall, the consensus was that things didn’t start to come apart until the end.”

There was certainly partisan anger on the part of the Democrats; Smith said that they “just didn’t like Nixon.” He went on to add, however, that impeachment “wouldn’t have been successful if there hadn’t been bipartisan support for the process.”

At first, Rhodes tried to protect Nixon as best he could, saying to the press that there should “be no impeachment for a mistake in judgment” and that he did not condone what the president did but could not vote him out for what he had done. As more information came to light, however, Rhodes could no longer justify protecting Nixon.

“The most important aspect of our entire system of government is equal justice under the law,” Rhodes said at the time. “When the roll is called in the House of Representatives, I will vote ‘aye’ on impeachment Article I.” Three days later, Nixon resigned.

Rhodes continued as Minority Leader until the end of his 14th term in 1981. While Smith believes that Rhodes had the votes to continue serving as Minority Leader, certain younger Members, including Gingrich, began to push him out of power because he was not partisan enough.

Smith regrets the lack of civility in today’s Congress and hopes that this book can help point the way back to a gentler time. “Politics has become a bloodsport,” Smith laments. “What the book is trying to say is that it’s not always been that way. What I’ve done is focus on one person’s career and how he and his contemporaries treated each other.”