Not Every Tom, Ted and Nancy Lives in D.C.

Posted June 9, 2005 at 3:35pm

Ted Kennedy says most people would consider him an evangelical “holy roller.” Henry Hyde repairs motorcycles and likes to Rollerblade. And George McGovern long ago turned his back on the Democratic Party in favor of the GOP.

Best kept secrets in town? Not quite.

All three are among countless Americans who happen to share the name of a Congressional eminence of the past half-century.

Of course, there are some Members and Congressional alumni so unique that the online White Pages failed to cough up even one non-Congressional example. They include former House Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

On the other hand, there may be Joe McCarthys in abundance, for instance, but few willing to talk about life in the shadow of the late Republican Senator from Wisconsin who led the infamous Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

One Joe McCarthy, in Exeter, N.H., got downright snippy when asked if he would chat.

“That was Joseph F. McCarthy, I’m Joseph A.,” he corrected, before abruptly ending the call. (Actually, Sen. McCarthy’s middle initial was R., as in Raymond. But point taken.)

Then there’s Lyndon Baines Johnson, a water treatment plant operator from Martinsburg, W.Va. “Growing up you are kind of picked on as a child,” he said of the experience of sharing a name with a prominent — and controversial — political figure.

For those Members concerned about historical immortality, individuals with Congressional appellations offer a sobering lesson in just how quickly the giants of Capitol Hill — and even some of those who went on to the White House — are forgotten. Some said their fellow Americans rarely comment on their names at all.

Take Sam Rayburn, a cardiovascular surgeon from Little Rock, Ark. He said that only his “older patients” recognize the name of the late House Speaker from Texas. “It’s a different generation,” he said, adding that he has made an effort to visit the eponymous House office building.

In the meantime, Mike Mansfield of Tuscaloosa, Ala., said he was often asked whether he was related to a famous Mansfield — just not the late Democratic Senator from Montana. “When I was in the service, people would ask me was I related to [the curvaceous blonde actress] Jayne Mansfield,” he said.

For his part, George McGovern, a director for the Boy Scouts in Griffin, Ga., said that people frequently confused his famous namesake — the liberal Democratic Senator from South Dakota — with segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D).

Surprisingly, Richard Nixon of Brielle, N.J., said that younger clerks in grocery stores and other shops often don’t think twice about his name. “They say, ‘Spell your name.’ And I’ll say, ‘Nixon, like the president.’”

No spark of recognition for Nixon’s successor, either. “They don’t pay no mind now,” said Gerald Ford, a retired maintenance worker from Richmond, Va., who shares his name with the former House Minority Leader, vice president and president from Michigan.

When asked whether they admired the politician with their name, most namesakes contacted for this story were either unabashed fans or neutral.

Robert Byrd, an unemployed truck driver from Bridgeport, Conn., said the West Virginia Democrat was “doing a great job,” and that he didn’t hold anything, including the Senator’s past KKK membership, against him.

Henry Hyde of Santa Barbara, Calif., who owns a motorcycle service shop, said he’d been pleased with the conduct of the 16-term Republican Representative from Illinois, although he added: “I hope he doesn’t ever do anything bad.”

But Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.) didn’t fare so well on the popularity meter. “I really can’t stand the guy,” said Ted Kennedy of Naples, Fla., a Republican who gave money to President Bush’s re-election campaign.

Sharing a name with a politician can be a nuisance, as several individuals reported. Cases of mistaken identity have led to mix-ups with luggage and mail as well as awkward interactions with telephone operators.

According to Alice Hyde, wife of Henry Hyde, an electrician who’s retired from the Air Force and now lives in Gresham, Ore., her husband’s luggage has been mixed up at least twice with that of the Illinois Congressman. Both times, the airlines returned the baggage, although on one occasion, a key item was missing: his military boots. “We don’t know who had gone through it,” she laughed.

Ted Kennedy, the “holy roller” and self-described “dumb hillbilly” from Richlands, Va., remembers his mother mailing him a letter when he was living in Pennsylvania with his uncle Robert that “ended up in Washington because she sent it to Ted Kennedy, care of Robert Kennedy,” Kennedy said. “She received a letter back from the White House apologizing for opening the letter.”

Footnote: His mother’s name, just like the politicians’, is Rose.

As it happened, Hubert Humphrey of McAlester, Okla., now 60, was in Minnesota in January 1978 on the day when the former Gopher State Senator and Democratic presidential nominee died.

“I had made a collect call to my wife. The operator said, ‘What is your name?’ She said, ‘I can’t put your call through because you just died.’ I said, ‘Huh — I was reincarnated as a young truck driver.’”

On a similar note, a ditzy store clerk once yelled, “He’s alive!” upon being handed the credit card of John F. Kennedy of Cranston, R.I.

Hotel reservations can also be a problem.

John F. Kennedy, a retired high school teacher from Boston, said that while traveling with a school group in the Greek islands, he and another teacher whose surname was Johnson almost lost their hotel rooms because the staff thought “our reservation … was a joke.”

Ditto for the Kennedy from Rhode Island, who attended Catholic University during the early 1960s and had trouble booking a room for his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Kennedy, when they came to visit. “They asked: ‘Is Jackie going to be there?’ They wouldn’t take the name,” he remembered, adding with a laugh, “so I used ‘Johnson’” — at the time, President Kennedy’s vice president. Ironically, this Kennedy said that his bus driver father ran as a Republican — unsuccessfully — against then-Rep. John Fogarty (D-R.I.) for Congress in 1962.

Other instances of mistaken identity were not so amusing. A few years back, Jesse Helms, a deputy sheriff in Lincoln County, N.C., got a call from an elderly woman who apparently thought he was the then-Republican North Carolina Senator of the same name. She was “extremely serious. … She had some kind of family member being held in another country and wanted to know if I could help,” Helms recalled.

The perceived sins or controversial stances of a politician can also haunt those who share the name, as some Ted Kennedys, one George Bush and the Lyndon Johnson can attest to.

“I drove trucks for 20 years and I’ve been tormented all over the U.S. because Kennedy run that lady off the bridge,” said the Ted Kennedy from Virginia, who is also a licensed ordained minister.

Likewise, the Ted Kennedy from Florida, a retired pharmaceutical sales manager, said that the mere mention of his name was enough to send physicians into a purple rage during past office visits to hawk his wares.

“I’d say, ‘I’m Ted Kennedy and they’d say, ‘Get the hell out of my office,’” he chuckled. “They hate him with a passion.”

George Bush, who owns an antique restoration business in Kapaau, Hawaii, said he almost lost a client over his name.

“If I was a relative, she didn’t want to do business with me,” Bush said of the client. Just to make sure there is no confusion, Bush displays his middle initial — “C” — on his delivery van.

Johnson said his name on his driver’s license so incensed “a lady at the DMV” that she treated him to an earful about the political failings, as she saw them, of the former Senate Majority Leader, vice president and president. “I don’t think she liked Johnson very much,” he laughed.

At times, some have had a hard time being taken seriously.

Nixon once got caught drinking beer at age 18. When the arresting officer asked him his name and he answered truthfully, the cop thought he was being a “smartass” and started “smacking the hell out of” him.

This is not to say there aren’t benefits to sharing the name of a powerful political figure.

Tom DeLay, a NASA researcher in Huntsville, Ala., said a flight from Houston — the House Majority Leader’s home base — to Alabama was once held for him. On another American Airlines flight, attendants were so tickled by his name that they made a Xerox copy of his ticket.

DeLay believes the Texas Republican is “a good guy,” regardless of the ethics questions swirling around him. He once wrote a letter to the then-House Majority Whip asking to meet, and DeLay obliged. The pair spent an hour in the Representative’s Capitol Hill office, he recalled, discussing hunting, fishing, work and politics. The Congressman later “sent bumper stickers and buttons,” DeLay noted, adding that the Lone Star State Republican jokingly advised him to “put one of the bumper stickers on his car and drive around and maybe it will irritate Bud” — Rep. Bud Cramer (D-Ala.) who represents the district where this DeLay lives.

DeLay now keeps a “DeLay for Congress” sticker in his office and delights in tweaking Cramer whenever he visits the Marshall Space Flight Center where DeLay works. “I’ll walk up and shake his hand and say, ‘Hey, I’m Tom DeLay.’ He hesitates and then gets a big smile.”

A prime political name can also help on the romantic front, some said.

Mansfield, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama, admits to having “lied about” being related to Sen. Mansfield to impress women he met in bars when he was stationed as a Navy intelligence officer in Washington, D.C., during the early 1990s. “I reserve the right to answer that,” he said on whether he’d ever gotten lucky as a result.

“Meeting women is easy,” added Nixon, a bachelor. “They love it. … They always remember you.”

Not so for our Bush, who said when he married his wife, she chose not to give up her maiden name in part because “she didn’t want to be Mrs. George Bush.”

In contrast, Nancy Pelosi of Rockaway Park, N.Y., was leaning against changing her last name following her upcoming wedding because she so enjoyed sharing the appellation of the House Democratic leader from California. “I think it is fun,” she said, adding that her fiancé had jokingly considered writing a book titled, “I Slept With Nancy Pelosi.”

Most got their famous names by chance or from family members, but a few were actually named after the politician himself.

Johnson, who is now a Republican, said his “strongly Democratic” father had worked as a firefighter at Dulles Airport in the 1960s and had actually met the then-vice president a few times.

His mother “contacted [Johnson’s] secretary … [to] let him know that I was going to be named after him.” In turn, Johnson’s office sent letters and autographed pictures. “I don’t know what my ex-wife did with the pictures,” Johnson said, but “I still have the letters.”

Likewise, Nixon said he was named after the late Member of Congress, vice president and president because his dad was a fan and as “the youngest of 10 [his parents] were running out of names.”

A few people tracked down for this story were apparently distantly related to the politician of the same name, including DeLay, Rayburn, the Ted Kennedy from Florida and Denny Hastert, a grain farmer in Greeley, Kan., who was out in the field spraying when this reporter telephoned. “He’s got the Hastert nose,” Joyce Hastert, wife of farmer Denny, said of the current Speaker.

Several reported having been contacted previously by the media.

Nixon, a retired cop, was invited on the “The Late Show with David Letterman” in February to help read the Top 10 list. “The subject was: ‘What has being named after a President done for you?’”

His answer: “Nothing.”

A few have earned media attention in their own right.

“Boy, you don’t know who you’ve picked,” said Jim Wright, a transmission supervisor for the Central Maine Power Company, when phoned for this story. “I do a lot of TV.”

Wright “does all the TV safety advertisements” for the power company and recently had a gig as an extra in the HBO film “Empire Falls,” starring Paul Newman and Ed Harris. He also dabbles in local politics. The former head of the Cornville, Maine, budget committee said he’s considered running for the state House “down the road.”

What’s more, he pointed out, whenever he gets ribbed about the ousted former House Speaker’s ethics troubles, he responds: “I’m from the side of the family that doesn’t have skeletons in its closet.”

While most of these Americans have never met their namesakes or visited Capitol Hill, a few have crossed paths with their alter ego.

“I got my picture in the newspaper when I was a kid with him,” said North Carolina’s non-Senatorial Helms.

Over his lifetime, the John F. Kennedy from Boston frequently encountered the late president, beginning in the ninth grade when then-Rep. Kennedy (D-Mass.) visited his school in honor of Patriot’s Day.

Later, when Kennedy was working as a floor manager for a local Boston TV station and Kennedy was running for Senate, he came in “several times to do programs. Sometimes they’d yell out from the control room: ‘Jack Kennedy!’ And he’d respond. And they’d say, ‘Oh, the other one.’”

Some were so pleased with their name that they passed it on to their offspring, including the “holy roller” Ted Kennedy.

When asked where his son could be reached, Kennedy replied that it might be hard.

How come?

“Ted lives in the Tazewell County jail,” he said. “He got in trouble in Washington … he took an underage girl across state lines with the intent to get married.”