Strange Bedfellow

Requiem for a Liberal

Sidney Yates’ half-century in the House.

This is my last “Strange Bedfellow.” When I return from vacation, I’m going to take a break from politics and try my hand at a column about the arts. To ease the transition, I thought it might be fitting to pay tribute to someone whose career spans these two worlds. He is Sidney R. Yates, the Democratic congressman who represents my birth-district on the North Side of Chicago. When Yates retires at the end of this congressional term at 89, he will have served in the House, but for one two-year interruption, since 1948. Leaving with him, I fear, will be not only a chunk of postwar history but much of the enlightenment that remains in the lower chamber.

I’m far from objective on this topic. Yates gave me my first paid job as a congressional page many summers ago, and the first writing I ever did about politics was answering constituent mail in his office. But my real gratitude is for what Yates’ example teaches: that politicians aren’t required to preen and pander or to speak only for the parochial interests of their districts. Yates has held the esteem and affection of the people he has represented for half a century by thinking about their good in a more elevated way. He is a liberal, one of the nearly extinct Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson variety. But in another way, I think of Sidney Yates as one of the only true conservatives around. He has found his mission in preserving what matters in our culture, and in standing in the way of attempts to coarsen and reduce it.

Up on the Hill a few weeks ago, I stopped by his office in the Rayburn Building for lunch. As ever, I was greeted by his chief aide, Mary Bain, who is an extraordinary story of liberal longevity in her own right. Mary came to Washington to work on the New Deal National Youth Administration in 1935 and has been with Yates since 1965. She and the boss were busy sorting 50 years’ worth of files and packing them up for the Truman Library. On the table were things they had found: a note from Eleanor Roosevelt expressing outrage about some now obscure postal reorganization bill, and a yellowed copy of the Chicago Sun-Times from July 15, 1965, the day after Adlai Stevenson died.

Sifting through these relics left Yates in a more wistful mood than usual. Though he can usually be counted on for a bit of patter from Gilbert and Sullivan, most of which he knows by heart, he told me he felt it had been too long since he reread Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in the classic translation by Brian Hooker. He began reciting it for me from memory:

I carry my adornments on my soul.I do not dress up like a popinjay; But inwardly, I keep my daintiness.

The lines apply to no one so well as the congressman from the 9th District of Chicago, who must be the only politician left in the House who avoids publicity and whose style is to follow the dictates of his conscience without making a spectacle of himself doing so.

A s Yates recounted over soup and sandwiches, he didn’t go into politics to save the world. He did it because he was bored working for his father-in-law’s law firm. In 1939, he ran against the Chicago Democratic machine for a seat on the City Council and not surprisingly lost. Recognizing that the only way in was with the blessing of the regular organization, he got it in 1948, when he was allowed to run for Congress as a sacrificial lamb. According to the elaborate ethnic spoils system of those days, the North Side House seat belonged to the Germans. But the German candidate who’d been slated to run decided in the face of a looming Republican sweep that he’d like to be postmaster, so Yates, who is Jewish, got his chance. He ran on a Democratic ticket with Harry Truman for president, Stevenson for governor, and Paul Douglas for senator. “I was the tail on the dog, and we all won,” he said.

Almost as soon as he was elected, Yates attempted self-immolation by voting against the McCarran Act, which placed McCarthyite restrictions on visitors to the United States. Colleagues told him that if he voted against it, he’d be a one term congressman, and they were nearly right. His opponent in 1950 passed out pink leaflets asking if the 9th District wanted a congressman who voted with the Communist Party. But Yates wrote a thoughtful letter to his constituents–the first of several hundred to come–explaining why he thought the bill was unconstitutional and eked out a narrow re-election. After surviving another close call in 1952, he was regularly returned by lopsided margins. In the House, he continued to get excited about injustices that bothered hardly anyone else. Around the same time, he saved the career of Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear fleet, when Rickover was passed over for promotion to admiral in part because of anti-Semitism in the Navy.

Though he had the endorsement of Mayor Richard J. Daley, Yates was never a machine man. In 1962 he had become the leader of the Illinois delegation by virtue of seniority, and Daley decided it was time for him to run for the Senate, in a kamikaze challenge to the Republican incumbent, Everett Dirksen. Yates lost, and a freshman named Daniel Rostenkowski assumed his place as head of the delegation. After a stint working for Stevenson at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Yates returned. But with his seniority erased, he began to narrow his focus to the issues that truly motivated him: Israel, the arts, and the environment.

The year he returned to Congress, 1965, the national endowments for the arts and humanities were voted into existence. When Yates became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the Interior, the national endowment budgets fell under his jurisdiction. In the 1970s, he was known as a tough-minded supporter who could be counted on for a meticulous review of how the endowments were spending their money. But after attempts to eliminate them began under President Reagan, and intensified with the Mapplethorpe fiasco, Yates’ career became preoccupied with keeping them alive.

He has managed to do so, at times through sheer force of will. Other representatives invite Hollywood celebrities to testify before their committees; Yates invited Yo-Yo Ma to play a Bach suite before his, soothing the savage breast of the NEA’s opponents. After Democrats lost the House, the NEA budget was cut in half. This year, Yates is battling to save it once more. He now leaves that mission to two New Yorkers: Louise Slaughter, a Democrat, and Amo Houghton, a patrician Republican. Whether his successors in this role succeed or not, I suspect that Yates will one day be better remembered for another accomplishment: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which he and his wife, Addie, worked for years to bring into existence.

As we finished lunch, I asked whether I was right in assuming Yates thought term limits were a bad idea. “To the contrary, Jacob,” he declared. “Twenty-four terms is enough for anyone.”