Sam Johnson: Fighter for the greater good
© Greg Nash

In this moment of hyperpartisan politics, it’s easy to overlook elected officials who represent and focus on the greater good. With the passing of former Vietnam POW Sam JohnsonSamuel (Sam) Robert JohnsonHouse seeks ways to honor John Lewis Sam Johnson: Fighter for the greater good House pays tribute to late Congressman Sam Johnson on the floor MORE last week, one of his former staff members recounted a legendary anecdote from his long career on Capitol Hill.

The Sarbanes-Oxley bill was being debated in Congress during the summer of 2002. It was a sweeping piece of legislation aimed at establishing tighter regulatory rules to protect shareholders, employees and the public from accounting fraud. Two powerful chairmen controlled one portion of the debate: Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) of Ways & Means Committee, and Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLongtime House parliamentarian to step down Five things we learned from this year's primaries Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks MORE (R-Ohio) of Education and the Workforce Committee.

Thomas, once voted the “meanest” and “hottest tempered” member of the House in a Washingtonian poll of Congressional aides, ruled the roost on the powerful Ways & Means Committee and liked to throw his weight around. BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLongtime House parliamentarian to step down Five things we learned from this year's primaries Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks MORE was no shrinking violet either and he subsequently went on to become Speaker of the House. Both had sizable egos and both controlled parts of pension law being rewritten in the wake of the Enron scandal.

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Johnson (R-Texas) was a member of both committees and was determined to make sure a pension scandal like Enron never happened to Americans again. To do so, he was determined to create strong language that would make pension protection airtight. Johnson wanted to make these decisions from his position as a subcommittee chairman at Education & Workforce.

Thomas, of course, wanted the pension decision made in Ways & Means. There was about to be a Texas-style showdown.

Sam and his staffer were summoned to the chairman’s office for a meeting about the bill. As she recalled, “It had swinging doors on it — like the western ‘OK Corral’ — and because it was across the hall from the physician’s office, the air had an odd medicinal odor.” Chairman Thomas and his assistant stood waiting and then immediately launched into a screaming tirade.

After a while, the chairman paused to take a breath and see whether Sam would also lose his temper and yell back. This was Thomas’s signature move, intended to put others on edge and rattle them. Sam stood tall and as straight as he could, took a deep breath and slowly and calmly asked in his best Texas drawl, “Are ya done yet?

Now, there was silence from Thomas. Sam turned on his heels and swiftly departed through the swinging doors. Walking back to Sam’s office across the street, his staffer was positively electric with anger. But Johnson thought it was funny. He started chuckling and cuffed his staffer with his arm that was all stiff with arthritis from being beaten for years when he was a Vietnam POW, asking her if she was OK. She wasn’t.

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At this point in their long walk back to their office across the street from the Capitol, Congressman Johnson stopped and looked her in the eye. With the confidence of someone who had actually laughed at a firing squad, he said, “Ya know, the Vietnamese held me for seven years. Thomas can only be chairman for six.”

Sam Johnson prevailed. His version of the pension protection language was signed into law. Texas lost more than a congressman last week. It lost a true representative of the people and a rare patriot.

Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Peter Fretwell are the coauthors of “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams.” The story was a recollection from one of his long-time staffers, Kathleen Black.