Sen. Eagleton Made Metro System Possible

Posted May 18, 2007 at 6:26pm

I ride the Metro in from Rockville because I would rather read the morning newspaper than fight the morning traffic. And it gives me a chance to remember Tom Eagleton, my best friend in politics, who died recently.

In 1979, Sen. Eagleton (D-Mo.) was chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on governmental efficiency and the District of Columbia, and I was his staff director. The No. 1 issue facing the subcommittee was the fate of the Metrorail system; $1.7 billion in federal funding was needed to finish the 101-mile Metrorail system — only 30.8 miles had been completed.

The second Arab oil embargo had hit, and the U.S. economy was starting to stagger. The federal deficit was soaring, and the anti-government sentiment that would help Ronald Reagan win the presidency in 1980 was on the rise. The Carter administration had begun its free fall.

The Metrorail system, originally priced at $2.5 billion, was now estimated to cost $7.2 billion. Eagleton, facing re-election in Missouri in a tough political year, was already politically vulnerable because he had played a key role in helping the District of Columbia achieve “home rule.” He decided that he could not back a “gold-plated subway system” for Washington, D.C., when there was no money for bus service in St. Louis.

As subcommittee chairman, he was well-positioned to kill the bill and score some political points by denouncing its cost and the excess of “Washington.” But Tom Eagleton didn’t see the Metro as just another local transit program. It was to be the mass transit system for America’s capital — not just for the residents of the Metro region but for everyone who came to visit.

Tom arranged to meet with Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.), the subcommittee’s ranking member. “Mac,” he said, “I’ve got to oppose the Metro.”

“Then, it’s dead,” Mathias intoned, in his sonorous voice.

“No, Mac,” Tom explained, “I’ll oppose it, but I won’t block it. You and [then-Sen.] Paul Sarbanes [also from Maryland] can move it if you get a committee Democrat to help.”

Tom suggested then-freshman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) as someone who would be supportive of mass transit and “would probably like to floor manage a bill.” Tom said he would confine himself to stinging, dissenting views.

Eagleton’s plan went off without a hitch. The legislation rolled through the Senate by a vote of 66-23. The legislation provided $1.7 billion in federal funds to go with $400 million from the localities, and the completion of the 101-mile Metro system was never again in doubt. For years to come, I got invited to the ribbon cuttings when Metro stations were opened. Having voted against it, Eagleton didn’t, but he played a key part in making it possible.

It is a great irony that Tom Eagleton will always be linked in the public mind to “depression.” No one had more joie de vivre or a more boisterous sense of humor. I can remember Tom driving to the first game of the 1979 World Series in an absolute sleet storm, sticking his head out the window every few minutes, yelling “It’s clearing, it’s clearing.” He would act out the memorable scene in which Adm. Hyman Rickover lectured the young Senator about the nuclear Navy, saluted, turned smartly and walked into a closet.

In a packed committee room, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) asked plaintively what had happened to support for the sunset bill, which had passed the Senate 98-1 the year before under the leadership of Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine). Eagleton’s perfectly timed response, “It’s your bill now, Jim,” brought down the house.

In 1991-92, we exchanged letters about the upcoming presidential election. For months, I argued that President George H.W. Bush was toast and that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton would be the next president. Eagleton responded that I was smoking something, that I had lost my mind and that the Democrats would “lose worse than in 1984 or 1988.” When Clinton’s victory was assured, I bundled the letters and sent them to Eagleton, with a note pointing out that at every juncture, I had been right and he had been wrong. Two days later, a note came back from Tom: “I have reviewed the correspondence between you and my staff … .”

When Eagleton decided that three terms in the Senate were enough, he announced his intention to retire 30 months before the elections to allow his staff maximum time to find their next jobs. We found other jobs, but none of us ever worked for a finer person. Tom counted many Senators among his close friends, but unlike most Senators, his closest friends also included those who had been his staff members.

He pledged to go home to St. Louis rather than stay in Washington as a lobbyist, and he did — practicing law, teaching public policy, writing a column and spearheading the effort to bring the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis. We stayed in touch for 20 years after he left Washington.

It’s been two months since his death, which makes it two months and two weeks since the last time he sent me an outraged letter, a perceptive article or a new book about the Iraq War. I still half-expect to see the large white envelopes with his spidery scrawl and the signature “TFE.”

Ira Shapiro, an international trade lawyer at Greenberg Traurig and a Clinton administration trade official, worked for Eagleton from 1979 to 1985.