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The gentleman from Texas and the ‘Watergate Babies’

{mosads}And we also knew just enough congressional history to recall that Jack had courageously led the effort to have President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.
A group of freshmen managed to get seats on “Gov. Ops.,” as it was called. The new chairman seemed rather shocked that we were so brazen, challenging what he thought should be routine committee proceedings with various parliamentary and procedural inquiries.
The freshmen soon were in coalition with only slightly more senior liberal members who had been elected two and four years earlier, most of them on anti-Vietnam War platforms: members like John Conyers of Michigan, Bella Abzug of New York and Michael Harrington and Robert Drinan of Massachusetts.
At one point in a contentious committee meeting, Abzug turned on her microphone and said “reinforcements have arrived!” I vividly recall Chairman Brooks’s reaction, a slight smile somewhat hidden by the massive amounts of cigar smoke he was blowing.
By 1978 the freshman and the chairman had worked long and hard together on several major issues important to President Carter and the country. We were almost always allies, not adversaries. Jack seemed to have learned to tolerate our rambunctiousness.
One day in the fall of 1978, members were gathering for a committee meeting and I was chatting with Rep. Leo Ryan from San Francisco (I was looking up at him from my lower level seat, where junior members resided).
Leo told me he was about to go to Guyana to try to rescue the daughter of parents from his congressional district; he said she’d been brainwashed by Jim Jones and members of his “Peoples Temple” living in the Guyana jungles.
Just days later he was dead, shot and killed by Peoples Temple members on the Guyana tarmac. Jones and hundreds of his followers died in a mass suicide shortly after that.
When our committee reconvened some weeks later, the first order of business was to approve a replacement for Leo as chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, Energy and Natural Resources.

The rules we had installed in ’74 to make committee chairmen more accountable could now be used to do the same on subcommittees. To win the chairmanship that Leo had, the next most senior member would have to garner more “yes” than “no” votes. If not, the vote then came on the next member in seniority.
A group of us decided that the three most senior members were not sufficiently progressive, and we should therefore vote “no” until the vote came down to one of us. But it would take four ballots to get there, and a jump that big had never been made before.
It would be a secret ballot vote by just the Democrats on the committee. We couldn’t tell Jack what we were doing. If he knew, he would have easily shut the whole thing down, just by lobbying Democrats on the committee to support the next in line.
The special closed session convened. Jack ordered his clerk to pass out small pieces of white paper. Members were to simply write “yes” or “no”.
Brooks, not sensing anything out of the ordinary, said “The question comes on the gentleman from Oklahoma to be chairman taking the place of our late and dear friend, Mr. Ryan.”
Members scribbled and the clerk collected the ballots and went to his seat at the table facing the committee — and its powerful chairman.
Those of us involved in the “coup” watched the clerk intently. His hands were shaking as he went through the papers, but even before he finished counting, Jack was saying “the next order of business for the committee is…”
Hands shot up. Members shouted into microphones.
“Mr. Chairman. Point of order,” said Henry Waxman, one of the architects of the move and a fellow freshman from California. Father Bob Drinan of Massachusetts was yelling into his mic, “Point of order … point of order. Mr. Chairman, the regular order is to have the vote tally announced.” Brooks seemed stunned. The clerk left his seat and, ballots in hand, approached the chairman who sat high above the committee. He whispered in Jack’s ear. Jack was blowing cigar smoke so fast now that we could barely see him from our distant junior perches.
Brooks leaned through the haze into his mike and said “the Gentleman from Oklahoma is rejected with a vote of 11 “nays” and 10 “Ayes”.
He ordered the clerk to hand out new ballots and announced that the next member in seniority would now be voted on. Again the clerk collected them, and this time didn’t even go back to his seat, but straight to the dais where Jack was looking very annoyed.
They counted them together. They were both sweating.
“On this vote, the gentleman from Georgia is rejected with 11 “Nays” and 10 “Ayes.”
Father Drinan was looking down, hoping no one could see him smiling.
One more ballot, one more rejection, and I was suddenly the chairman of the subcommittee with an 11 “yes” and 10 “no” vote.
Brooks slammed his gavel down and said “the committee does now stand adjourned.”
Members headed for the doors. I recall how Waxman was sprinting and purposely not looking back at the chairman.
The press was gathering outside the committee room with news that the “Watergate Babies” had pulled off another bit of insurrection.
I gathered my stuff and headed for the door and Brooks bellowed “Moffett! Moffett! Would you mind coming up here?”
I was shaking. I went up to the top step to face the chairman sitting in the top seat.
He blew some more smoke, this time pretty much swallowing up both of us.
“Moffett,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” I replied, my voice cracking with fear.
“You are one tough Syrian SOB,” he said, only slightly distorting my Lebanese heritage.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” I replied.
“Moffett,” Brooks went on. “How old were you when you got here?”

“Twenty-nine, Mr. Chairman.”
Jack leaned across the dais, his face now very close to mine. In a much lower voice, he said, “So was I, Moffett. So was I. So I understand what you and your gang were up to and I can relate to it. Now come see me in my office tomorrow so we can help make you a really good chairman.”
That was Jack Brooks. Tough, funny, forgiving.
Sixteen years later and 20 years after he first met those upstart freshmen, Jack Brooks lost the congressional seat he had held for 42 years, a victim of the Gingrich revolution and Republican takeover of the House and a casualty of having supported the assault weapons ban.
Jack Brooks died last week in Beaumont, Texas. He was a gem of a person and a wonderful public servant. The “Watergate Babies” grew to love and respect him. We learned from him. He made us better representatives and, when our time came to go, better private citizens, too.

Moffett is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut. He is now chairman of The Moffett Group, a consulting firm.


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