Back to the Basics

Ex-Rep. Houghton Now Interning for Massachusetts Diocese

Posted April 19, 2005 at 3:10pm

A lot has changed in the four months since the Honorable Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) retired from Congress.

For one, his commute to work now includes a leisurely ferry ride across the Boston Harbor. For another, he’s answering to a slightly less lofty title: intern.

Since February, the 78-year-old Houghton has been volunteering for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, where he spends two to three days a week in a “little office” in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul complex in Boston assisting Bishop M. Thomas Shaw.

“Some people do do the double take,” said the former New York Representative, who is known simply as Amo around the church office.

Houghton, a lifelong Episcopalian who once considered joining the priesthood, said the idea of working for the diocese had long intrigued him. Encouragement from Shaw and Houghton’s younger brother, Alan, an Episcopalian priest in South Carolina, convinced him the unpaid internship should be his next move post-retirement.

“When I hang up my suit in this life, I don’t want to be looking back at just a great golf game,” Houghton explained. “I didn’t want to go and lay on a beach the rest of my life.”

Still, Houghton conceded some changes have been harder to adjust to than others.

Long gone are the days of giving dictation, Houghton noted. “I don’t have a secretary. … It’s a big shift,” he said.

“When I have dinner, when I have a sandwich or something I take in my plate and glass and wash it and put it away,” he added.

When reached for comment, Bishop Shaw, who rated intern Houghton’s performance to date a “10,” praised the former Congressman’s rapidly improving office skills.

“He now knows how to use the pantry and photocopier,” Shaw said. “He’s had a rough time with the telephone system, but I think he’s doing it.”

Even so, Houghton said, some things have remained reliably the same. For instance, he still dons a suit before heading to work.

“I’ve got to wear them out before I die,” said Houghton, in typical droll form.

Among his intern duties, Houghton is tasked with analyzing the viability of a housing project the diocese may fund in the West Bank city of Ramallah, doing general budget research, offering advice on the staffing of chaplaincies in universities and assisting the bishop with the development of the diocese’s 10-year mission strategy. He also sits in on all senior staff meetings, Shaw said.

“He asks some very sharp questions,” Shaw observed.

And Shaw should know. Five years ago, Shaw, who first met Houghton in the 1980s when the then-Corning Glass Works chairman and CEO attended a retreat at a monastery in Cambridge, spent six weeks in Washington doing an internship of his own in Houghton’s Capitol Hill office. (Shaw also officiated at the marriage of Houghton and his wife of 15 years, Priscilla.)

“I was concerned about the church’s public voice, so I wanted to learn as much about government as I could,” the bishop said of his internship. Accordingly, Shaw, the only Episcopalian bishop in the United States who is also a monk, headed to Capitol Hill in his monastic habit.

“I had a desk — he didn’t have me sitting in it very often,” Shaw added, noting that Houghton arranged for him to meet everyone from Supreme Court justices to the president.

Shaw, a registered Democrat whose support for gay marriage and pro-Palestinian stances have generated controversy, quipped that his friendship with the Republican Houghton was rather extraordinary.

“I have a joke I tell about him [that] he’s the only Republican I pray for,” laughed Shaw, referring to Houghton’s moderate-to-liberal positions on social issues.

In Congress, Houghton supported stem-cell research and abortion rights, and he was a reliable legislative advocate of separation of church and state issues — which often put him at odds with members of his party. (Unlike the bishop, however, Houghton does not back same-sex marriage, though he does support gay civil unions and their blessing by the church.)

Shaw is not the only religious figure to have interned for then-Rep. Houghton.

Both the president of St. Bonaventure University, a Catholic institution, and a Northern Virginia bishop worked in his Longworth Building office.

Moreover, two of Houghton’s former aides — Press Secretary Molly Darling and health care Legislative Assistant Cathy Rafferty — went on to become Episcopalian priests.

“I’m a hotbed of evil,” Houghton chuckled.

Since retiring at the end of the 108th Congress after nine terms in the House, Houghton now splits his time between his home in Corning, N.Y., and a house his wife owns in Cohasset, Mass., just outside of Boston.

On those Sundays he’s in the Bay State, Houghton, as part of his intern duties, often visits the various parishes in the 77,000-member diocese, which covers eastern Massachusetts, “talking about the relationship of my life to the church and the opportunity that exists for the church under Tom’s leadership.”

“I don’t give a religious service,” asserted Houghton with a laugh. “Nobody’d be fooled by Houghton standing up there incanting the papal rights.”

Aside from his internship, Houghton also serves on the board of the Washington, D.C.,-based Faith and Politics Institute, which seeks to bring together religious leaders and Members of Congress for discussion and reflection. Houghton said he’s interested in setting up organizations modeled after the nonprofit group in New York and possibly in Boston.

“I haven’t found that person up here,” said Houghton, referring to the need to find an individual of similar stature and talent as the current Faith and Politics president, the Rev. W. Douglas Tanner.

Houghton’s also been busy helping form an economic development committee in upstate New York and “trying to build up the center of the Republican Party” through his work with the Republican Main Street Partnership, which he founded.

As for how long he intends to continue interning for Bishop Shaw, Houghton declined to give a date.

“Maybe until he kicks me out,” he said.