Intimations of mortality

Death.

It comes to everyone. It’s the final moment of every life. But when it takes a member of Congress as suddenly as it took Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.), it doesn’t seem natural. In a world accustomed to frenzy and motion, time stops, shock sets in and a period of profound reflection begins.
Lauren V. Burke
Mourning Rep. Robert Matsui: Members of Congress pledge their allegiance to their country — and to a colleague — in a Statuary Hall ceremony last week.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) was picking up suits at a Brooks Brothers in Virginia with his wife when he received the call on his cell phone telling him that his California colleague had died. After Crowley hung up, he told his wife, who looked at her husband and burst into tears. She hadn’t known Matsui, but knew his wife, Doris, well enough.

The couple stood in disbelief, trying to comprehend what had happened. In the days to come, shock turned to introspection. At 42, Crowley is considerably younger than Matsui, who was 63 when he died, but still too old to share in the invincibility of youth.

“He was 20 years my senior, not a long time,” Crowley said. “I took assessment of where I am at 42. I hope I am held in as high regard as Bob Matsui.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the California press that she felt as though she had been “punched in the stomach” when she heard the news that Matsui had died. He died of pneumonia brought on by complications to myelodysplastic disorder, an often fatal form of bone marrow cancer.

Shock and grief. Intimations of mortality. Each lawmaker responds to the loss of a colleague in his or her own way. Congressional communities have always had to deal with the sudden death of colleagues — from suicides, steamer explosions, airplane crashes and automobile accidents. Fortunately, there are fewer duels and assassinations these days.

In 1857, Rep. John Gallagher Montgomery (D-Pa.) died of food poisoning he contracted while staying at a Washington hotel. In 1867, Rep. Cornelius Springer Hamilton (R-Ohio) was killed by his insane son in Marysville, Ohio, just nine months after coming to Congress. In 1917, Sen. Paul Husting (D-Wis.) was shot and killed while duck hunting.

During the 72nd Congress (1931-1932), 26 members died — the most in a single Congress.

Recent years have seen other unexpected losses: Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) died in a plane crash in 2002; Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) died in 1999 from an infection after cardiac surgery; Rep. Walter Capps (D-Calif.) died of a heart attack in 1997; Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) died after he crashed into a tree while skiing in Lake Tahoe in 1998.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-Minn.) said he took weeks, maybe months, before he stopped looking around airport boarding areas for Wellstone, the colleague he often traveled with across the country. He said that he believes his response to Matsui’s death will require a similar process. “I will not fully understand that Bob has died until weeks have gone by,” he said.

The unexpected death of colleagues makes Pomeroy stop and appreciate the fact that he works alongside “really wonderful people. In the middle of the daily food fight, you’re not thinking about that.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) walked through the Speaker’s Lobby with his gaze turned down sadly a few days after Matsui died. “It’s just devastating,” he said. “Here was a man who looked more fit than most of us, who looked younger than most of us. I’m just dumfounded.

“I don’t have to tell you. Bob was the nicest guy, the classiest guy, the most personable guy we had in the House — and now he’s gone.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) wasn’t especially close to Matsui but still feels the loss and a sudden need to reflect on the institution and lifestyle that all lawmakers share.

“Congress tends to be nonstop,” he said. “There is event after event, votes, constituents, intrigue, dinner — just a constant push. I always think of it as a moving walkway. When you go back home you think, ‘mentally free at last,’ and yet you have town meetings, Rotary clubs, constituent meetings. So you just do not have time to sit back and reflect.”

An unexpected death in the congressional family is enough to stop lawmakers, for a while at least. Looking back on Bono’s skiing accident, Kingston said, “Lots of people go skiing. No one dies. You break your leg. There’s a curiosity and disbelief about death, always.”

Most members did not know Matsui was even sick.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) sat in shock on a couch inside her Washington home watching CNN as news of her colleague’s death flashed across the screen. Days later, at a memorial service in Statuary Hall, she reflected on how tired Matsui looked in December when Congress temporarily returned for business. “I didn’t think he was sick,” she said. “I thought he was tired.”

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) recalled how drawn Matsui looked in December. Clyburn learned about his colleague’s death while vacationing at the family’s traditional holiday spot in Hilton Head, S.C. He was packing his things to return to Columbia when he received the early phone call from his chief of staff, Yelberton Watkins.

“I thought he had misspoken,” Clyburn recalled. “I said, ‘Yebbi, I don’t think you said that quite right.’”

But Watkins had relayed the news accurately and waited as the information sank in. “I just could absolutely not believe it,” Clyburn continued. “This may sound strange, but I think his death is already having a sobering effect on this body. Lives are snuffed out so quickly. It makes you understand how tenuous life is.”

It is, of course, but congressional life goes on. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) had just been elevated to the ranking position on the Homeland Security Committee when he was asked to reflect on Matsui’s death. Thompson had heard about it in a call from Clyburn while attending a Methodist men’s breakfast in Bolton, Miss. As Thompson explained how much Matsui would be missed, he echoed Crowley’s introspection about mortality: “He’s 63, you’re 53; that’s not that far.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) remarked that the relationships among members of Congress are deep and varied and different from any other.

“We have these intense relationships broken up by months where we don’t see one another. Nonetheless, they are sincere and deep and we experience the same tensions and pressures and worries. There are only 435 in the same spot who really understand.

Lofgren came to Congress in the same class as Bono and served with him on the Judiciary Committee. “It is not as if he played a mentor role to me,” she said. “We live in a partisan world, so it wasn’t nurturing. Sonny and I had a cordial relationship. We served on the same committee. You certainly feel badly, especially in the case of someone who goes too young like Sonny. There’s a little hole in the fabric.”

But in the case of Matsui, she said, it’s “a gaping hole.”

So now, she and her colleagues face a loss they did not anticipate.

“He was here when I got here,” she said of her decade-long friendship with Matsui, “and he helped me find my way.”