Mary Anderson Bain

My favorite old New Dealer.

Mary Bain

“You don’t need many heroes,” legal scholar John Hart Ely once wrote, “if you choose carefully.”Mary Anderson Bain, who died Monday at the age of 94, was one of mine, though she surely would have scoffed at the label.

I first met Mary in 1979, when she was only in her late 60s. “You should talk to Sid Yates,” an old Chicago political hand suggested as I, fresh out of college, searched for a congressional staff job. “And that means you should talk to Mary Bain.” Sid and Mary, I soon came to appreciate, were that rarity on Capitol Hill, a congressman and a top aide who worked together as equals, and who were committed to getting things done rather than getting attention. I later would learn also that Mary had already lived out several careers, including as a high-level New Dealer, an insider on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns, and the founder of a successful advertising agency.

The first day I met her, I was struck by her warmth and her energy. Mary was more than 6 feet tall, with striking white hair, a mischievous glint, and an infectious laugh. She hated phoniness and pompousness, and that came through immediately. She was immensely amused that I didn’t have a résumé with me, and that, in fact, I needed to create one. I think that got me the job.

She was an FDR Democrat in every fiber of her being. That meant progressive politics, and it surely meant effective politics. But, most of all, it meant the fun of politics. She always kept a bottle of Scotch in her lower desk drawer, and, when Sid wasn’t around, she pulled it out on special occasions—a particularly good day, a particularly bad day, or just when she wanted to perk things up, which was most of the time. As we got to know each other, I came to understand that she had come of age boozing and playing cards all night with Harry Hopkins and other New Deal legends. They were fighting the Depression and having a raucous time every step of the way.

In the ‘30s, Mary was one of the nation’s two youngest directors of the New Deal state employment agencies. The other was Lyndon Johnson in Texas. Mary quickly made a name for herself by standing up at meetings, challenging Hopkins and others about why more wasn’t being done more quickly. That was her defining spirit every day I knew her—why weren’t we doing more, and doing it more quickly? From the time I met her until her death this week, I always wondered if I could keep up with her.

Despite a difference of almost 50 years in our ages, Mary never felt old to me, or even older than I was. Sure, she would weave in references to people and events from a time before I was born. Chatting about Clinton aide Harold Ickes, for instance, Mary readily lapsed into personal anecdotes about his father, longtime New Deal Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. But the stories were only part of the fun of being with her. Mary was quicker and more full of energy than anybody. Just a few months ago, she and her husband, Herb, who died in June, also at 94, out-drank me during a long and boisterous evening at their apartment in an assisted-living home.

God, she was funny and full of fight. A few weeks ago, still grieving for her husband of 69 years, she gleefully showed me her proudest new possession—a framed photo of a dog urinating on a Bush-Cheney sign with a hand-lettered caption that read, “Who Says Dogs Can’t Read?” When Nancy Pelosi was elected minority leader, Mary was thrilled, both because she liked Pelosi, and because, after all, Mary had been a 9-year-old girl when suffrage became the law, and she took unmitigated delight in every advance for women. Mary called Pelosi and excitedly yelled, “You go, girl!” Shortly before she died, upon being admitted to the hospital, they asked Mary if she wanted a single room or a double. “A double with a handsome man” was her immediate reply.

Mary’s real legacy was what she accomplished. Using Sid Yates’ perch as chairman of the interior appropriations subcommittee and his enormous skill as a legislator, the two of them almost single-handedly saved federal support for the arts, fought on behalf of the environment, created the Holocaust Museum, and killed wasteful sacred cows, such as the SST, a supersonic civilian jet. They won unheralded victories every day.

Quaint as it now seems, Mary and Sid, who passed away in 2000, cared little about whether they got the credit—they got their charge from their accomplishments. And, although they were both deeply partisan, they recognized that they could not get anything done without cooperating closely with Republicans. They both forged close friendships with GOP members and their staffs. It wasn’t just that they would have viewed it as unseemly not to work that way. Even worse, it would have been dumb politics.

Mary was a hero, not just to me, but to legions of other young Chicagoans and politicos, whom she also charmed and mentored. Her tribe included Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg, whom I first met when he was a high-school page in Yates’ office under Mary’s tutelage while I was there.

At a breakfast in Mary’s honor a few years ago, legislator after legislator rose to say how she had taught them more than anybody about how to be effective on Capitol Hill. And about how much fun she was. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said that he always wanted to run away with Mary. Congressman Barney Frank slyly confided that for him personally, Durbin’s comment was a particularly difficult act to follow, but that what the hell, he wanted to run away with her, too. We all did.