When I arrived at work last Tuesday I learned that a former congressman who represented my old stomping grounds back in Oklahoma had died. I’ve found myself in the past week thinking a lot about him, what others thought about him and what he might or might not have accomplished while he was in Congress.
Former U.S. Rep. Mike Synar, a maverick congressman who drew the enmity of gun owners, tobacco growers and conservatives during the eight terms he represented eastern Oklahoma, died early Jan. 9 at his home in Washington, D.C., after losing his battle with a rare, fast-growing form of brain cancer.
He was 45.
For me to claim Synar among my limited list of friends would be more than a bit presumptuous. He was first elected to Congress in 1978; I was in junior high school. Synar was for me what Jamie Whitten must have been for three or four generations of Mississippians: a fixture.
For 16 years, no matter where I roamed, it seemed one thing was always constant back home in the 2nd District: Synar’s constituents were saying he was “too liberal,” “too Washingtonized,” “too big for his britches.”
The latter always amused me, as I’m sure it did him. You see, Mike was a little chunky when he first got to Washington. But somewhere along the way he gave up smoking, started running and got downright slim, which, of course, meant it was the britches that were too big for him.
(Somewhere, there’s a reporter who’s a much better writer than I who wove that little tidbit into a great lead.)
I never was a big Synar fan. When I was younger and all my fuzzy-headed liberal friends were proclaiming him the best thing since the 2-liter bottle of Coke, I never got it.
While everyone else was marveling at how liberal it was of him to support things like requiring a five-day waiting period to purchase of a gun and placing further restrictions on cigarettes and warning labels on smokeless tobacco, I was unimpressed.
To me, those ideas didn’t seem all that liberal; they just seemed like good sense.
Eventually, I ended up at a newspaper in Synar’s district and covered him quite a bit, especially during his final successful campaign. We had a mutual friend who was an attorney in Washington, a fact I knew but didn’t expect him to know, so at our first face-to-face meeting, he knew a lot more about me than I knew about him.
The banter that day was good; the story, I’m sure, was lousy; and, from then on I always looked forward to the days he’d be swinging through town. I realize that sounds pretty shallow and would have destroyed whatever smidgen of credibility I might have had as a journalist if I’d said it back then. But looking back, I can say this with conviction: so what.
It was kind of nice to know that somewhere in Washington there was a congressman you could call by his first name and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Don’t get me wrong; he was politician, through and through. He wore those dark suits they only make for congressmen and hospital executives. And he wore those suits with cowboy boots – “roach killers,” if you’re from out my direction. And, boy, did he burn up our fax machine with press releases about all the great things he was supporting in Washington.
I’d been meaning to drop him a line since I found out back in the summer he was ill, but I never got around to it. That’s something I’m sure I’ll regret for some time. I guess, in some small way, this conspicuous little consumption of very expensive newsprint in a place where no one knew him will have to do.
Paul Tyrrell is assistant news editor at the Daily Journal.