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Only he deserves power who every day justifies it. -Dag Hammarskjold
Dick VanderVeen was sent to Washington as the representative from Michigan's 5th congressional district during the mid 1970s. He was elected twice: in a 1974 special election, to finish out Gerald Ford's term when Ford became vice president, and in a regular election later the same year. He served three years in all. After his terms were up, well-wishers sometimes tried to humor him in his retirement by making out that Washington was a rat-race and unworthy of him, but he would have none of it. His journals show him proud of his service and unashamed to say he missed Washington.
"Aren't you glad that you're no longer there?"
As a former member of Congress, I've heard that question, sometimes made as a statement, more than any other.
It is often asked during the campaign season before elections. Hearings like those presently being conducted concerning the "Keating Five" increase the volume. The Iran-Contra affair provoked another spate.
Depending on the questioner and depending upon how involved I want to become, my answer is: "No, I'm not glad I'm no longer there. If I had my way, Iwould still be there."
My brief time in Congress and the campaigns for election were the most exhilarating experiences of my life. In four campaigns for election to the House, I was elected twice and lost twice. So I know the elation of winning and the pain of losing. Running for election to the seat vacated by Gerald Ford resulting from his appointment as V.P. was costly to me, personally. I gave up my law practice and the law firm I had helped nurture for 25 years dissolved itself into about 6 pieces. There was nothing for me to return to when I lost the seat after winning twice. There were other ways in which the experience was costly. Friends which we had known for years were casualties of partisan politics. The salary and travel allowances didn't cover the cost of living in two places. I sold some stock and my wife sold some of her stock to cover the difference between income and outgo. The time it took to readjust to living without a personal staff and having the press eager for your opinion was longer than I thought it might be. I tried doing several things, both in Washington and G.R., before I settled on something that I felt was worth while. Despite all these things, my one regret is that I am no longer a member of Congress. As a member, you are a part of making the news-not a reporter, or commentator, and not merely a reader, but a maker of the news. Whether successful or not, you are in a position to do something about all manner of things which affect the lives of Americans-and as an American-of the world. Never has any role in my life-as a lawyer, businessperson, church worker, local office holder, or other occupation been so completely challenging. In no other role has there ever been such total demand for every ounce of ability that I could muster.
This sentiment-of pride in his accomplishments, and a continuing belief in government and politics-expresses itself throughout Dick's journals. The view from inside had not been disillusioning for him and it never rendered him cynical. He achieved a dream in serving in Congress, and he always felt it had been a worthy thing to strive for.
It was fortunate he felt as he did, because getting the opportunity hadn't been easy. The latter part of this chapter shows that Dick served a long apprenticeship of political and community service to become the man the Democrats would choose to fight for Gerald Ford's House seat in 1973. For many years, it looked like a genuine opportunity to serve at the federal level would never arise. Dick had run for Congress back in 1958, but the district was heavily Republican, and he knew better than to become a perennial candidate. By the 1970s, as House Minority Leader, Ford had become practically untouchable in his home district.
The political landscape finally changed in 1973, amid the upheavals of the Watergate scandal. Richard Nixon had begun his second term in January that year, but the investigation into the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters the year before was becoming wider and increasingly public. In the spring, top members of President Nixon's administration-Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean-were implicated and fired, and televised hearings of the House judiciary committee riveted the nation's attention. Then, in the fall of 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign because of (unrelated) criminal charges, and Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader and Michigan's 5th district representative, was sworn in as Nixon's new vice president. To fill Ford's vacant seat in Congress, a special election was called for Feb. 18, 1974. This gave Dick an opportunity.
N.d. [after 1994], "Special Election" During the evening of the day of Ford's appointment [Oct. 13, 1973], the telephone at 501 Edgemere rang. It was Wes Vivian calling. With no preliminaries, he said, "Well, what are you waiting for?" Wes had studied at MIT while I was in law school at Harvard.... Wes had married Ann Biggs, the girl who lived next door to Marion when she was in high school in Lapeer-Marion's best friend.... We saw a lot of each other while Wes was in graduate school at MIT and I was navigating the shoals of a very competitive Harvard Law School.... Wes was a thorough Democrat.... We talked politics endlessly. It was always assumed that it was I who would be in active politics-that Wes would be the nuclear physicist and that I would be the lawyer-politician. But Wes, while on the faculty at [the University of] Michigan, very soon got involved in partisan Ann Arbor city politics and was elected to the AA City Council and, in 1970, to Congress. Imagine my surprise! It wasn't that I hadn't tried in the period before Wes got elected to Congress. I ran against Gerald Ford for the congressional seat in 1958. After what I thought was a spirited campaign, I reduced his winning margin from about 70% in prior elections to about 60%. I was convinced that in the absence of some compelling reason, this Republican stronghold was not going to change. That compelling reason presented itself when Gerald Ford's seat became vacant and the governor set February 18, 1974 as the date for a special election to fill the vacancy. Watergate was boiling up. The papers around the world were full of talk of impeachment.... So when Wes called and quietly asked, "What are you waiting for?" I knew immediately what he was saying. We hadn't talked for a long time, but it was as though his question was a part of a current conversation in Cambridge.
He threw his hat into the ring, and the Democratic Party shortly closed ranks behind him as their candidate. He made Nixon the central issue of his campaign from the outset. The public announcement of his candidacy began:
Jan. 7, 1974, "Statement"
Today, I want to set forth what I will attempt to make the broad general themes of my campaign. In the coming weeks, I shall be addressing specific issues, and issuing position papers on those issues, but today, I want to state what I believe will be the essential issue of the campaign, which is whether Richard Nixon has the capacity to govern this nation. I have reluctantly and sadly concluded that for the good of the country, Richard Nixon should resign from office. This country and this district cannot continue to survive so long as a moral and leadership vacuum exists in Washington, and for the past many months, that has been the case.
He hired the Boston consulting firm of John P. Marttila (Marttila, Payne, Kiley and Thorne) to advise his campaign, and raised more, and spent more ($75,000) than had any Democratic candidate for the office in previous years. The contest between him and his opponent, Robert VanderLaan, the Republican majority leader and a twelve-year member of the Michigan Senate, was expected to be closer than the lopsided races of Jerry Ford's incumbency. In fact, the VanderLaan campaign was concerned enough to bring Elliot Richardson to Grand Rapids to stump for VanderLaan in the last week. Richardson had resigned as Nixon's attorney general in October, after refusing orders to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The campaign hoped his appearance would bolster VanderLaan's attempt to distance himself from the Nixon administration. Vice President Gerald Ford also appeared twice in his home district in the month leading up to the election.
Indeed, the potential impact of the race drew unusual attention from the media and political leadership on both sides. As Dick remembered it,
N.d. [1994-96] "Re: 1973" What was happening in our special election became political news all around the country. In the last days of the campaign reporters and TV crews from Washington, New York and around the world began to appear. Marion fed a BBC television crew in the kitchen on Edgemere. Mary McGrory, Jack Germond, NBC, CBS and ABC appeared.... Congressman Peter Rodino [D-NJ] came into the district to campaign for me. He was the chairman of the House Judicial Committee, which had begun to discuss impeachment procedure.... Our campaign was the lead story night after night on local TV. We appeared for 24 straight evenings on the local TV evening news. Of the approximate $75,000 raised and spent on the campaign, not one dollar was spent for TV. We didn't need any paid TV. Many people-young and old, strangers, friends, and family-were energized by the campaign and threw themselves into it. Dick's sons played a big part and recruited their friends. Afterwards, and for years to come, people who had been a part of it would cherish the memory of that effort as a time of shared hope and excitement.
Through it all, Dick was considered the underdog, with the anticipation and speculation focusing more on how close a race he could make it than on whether he could win. The Grand Rapids Press reaction, after it was over, makes this clear: "Election observers felt that the usual winning percentages enjoyed by Ford since his election to Congress 25 years ago would not be equaled, but few were predicting the disaster inflicted on district Republicans by VanderVeen" (2/19/74). Ford had never failed to carry the district by less than 60.5 percent of the vote.
The Grand Rapids Press endorsed VanderLaan, but printed a dissenting opinion by their chief editorial writer, Ray Kwapil:
[T]he odds on The Press endorsing a Republican candidate are slightly better than the Santa Girls making a quota-or the United Fund NOT making one. Stephen Kishkorn reportedly was the last Democrat to win the Press' endorsement, and that has to make one wonder.... Monday's special election poses a unique opportunity for voters-really, a million-to-one shot. To put everything into perspective, there is one, and only one, job for the winning nominee to perform when he gets to Washington. By all accounts the House will be voting this spring on whether to impeach the president, and nothing a freshman congressman can do, or should do, will approach this task in importance. (Grand Rapids Press, 2/15/74)
In the final week, the Marttila firm rolled out a new angle on the resignation theme. In place of the negative "Nixon should resign," Dick urged the positive, "Jerry Ford should be president."
Feb. 12, 1974
I say it is time to put this Watergate business behind us, not before us. I say it is time to spare us the divisiveness and despair that will come from further investigation of Richard Nixon's personal and public life.
I say let's put Gerald Ford in the White House, because the people do not trust Richard Nixon now and they will not trust him even if we cannot prove high crimes or misdemeanors. I say let's put Gerald Ford in the White House because he can put an end to the worst crisis of all: the moral crisis in Washington. Let us here in Grand Rapids show the nation that we believe there is a man in Washington who can lead us out of Watergate. Let us here in Grand Rapids take the first step toward making Gerald Ford our next president.
(A penciled annotation by Marion reads, "This may have gained votes-but I hated this.")
The voters did just as he recommended, giving Dick a decisive victory of 53,000 to 46,000 and sending their message around the world. Dick describes what it was like that night:
Feb. 18, 19, 20, 1974
Eastern Avenue Hall on election night! Jammed to the walls with chanting, stamping, laughing, crying people. People of all ages, all backgrounds and all types. The refrain: "Nixon Must Go!"-over and over-louder and louder-until I literally feared that the second floor would collapse or the swaying would cause the building to fall. National and international television and press coverage. A great triumph for young people who could see that it was possible to accomplish great things within the political process.
There was, indeed, worldwide press coverage. The upset was front page news in The Australian and in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune. The Soviet Tass news agency ascribed the victory to the energy crisis, inflation, and unemployment. It was a lead story in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune. Rolling Stone magazine wrote about it, as did columnists like Mary McGrory of the Washington Star. Newsweek magazine called it a "stunning upset" that "set temblors running across the American political landscape":
The returns from Grand Rapids, as Washington read them, confirmed the Nixon scandals as an issue-perhaps the issue-of this election year. They set Democrats dreaming of a congressional majority unmatched since 1964, or 1936. They brought Republicans to the verge of panic-and to the brink of deserting the president. They lent new momentum to the gathering effort to force Mr. Nixon from office, by impeachment or resignation. And they dangerously weakened his defenses precisely as he was entering what may be the last critical passage in his struggle to survive in office.... And still the danger signs kept proliferating. Jaworski's people tightened the screws on various Watergate suspects.... The House impeachment inquiry got seriously down to cases.... Former Attorney General John Mitchell and ex-Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans went on trial in New York for obstruction of justice and perjury.... Worst of all for the president was the damage done his reduced base of support by the Grand Rapids returns-the second straight GOP defeat in a run of five special congressional elections this winter and spring. The first, in Pennsylvania two weeks earlier, was widely termed too ambiguous to read, since the margin was only 400 votes and Watergate was not overtly an issue. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Words and Actions by Dick VanderVeen Copyright © 2009 by Richard F. VanderVeen Family Trust. Excerpted by permission.
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