Rep. Hastings Keith; Federal Pension Critic

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

Hastings Keith, 89, a retired Republican congressman who represented the 12th District of Massachusetts for seven terms and who launched a post-retirement crusade to restructure the federal pension system, died July 19 of pneumonia at the Guardian Center, a nursing home in Brockton, Mass.

As he explained in his book "Make It Fair: An Angry Call for Federal Pension Reform" (2003), his circumstance as a self-professed "quadruple dipper" offended his frugal Yankee sensibilities. He received a pension from his 20 years of government service, including 15 years in Congress; a pension from the military for his years in the Army; Social Security benefits, based on earlier employment in the insurance business; and a widower's annuity from the Central Intelligence Agency, where his wife had worked for 25 years. He also complained about being the beneficiary of automatic cost-of-living increases that boosted his pension checks each year.

In the preface to his book, written with Richard L. Barnes, he wrote: "I am ripping you off. You ought to be angry. But it's not just me. A few million others are ripping you off, too!"

His was a quixotic quest. Politicians either ran from him or sneered; retiree associations and the federal employees' lobby invariably took aim at his proposals. In 1993, he talked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a typical encounter, this one with Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., who was a presidential candidate at the time. When he laid out his plan for at least scaling back the cost-of-living adjustments, Haig looked at him unbelievingly. "You want me to put my neck in a noose?" he asked.

Thwarted at every turn, Mr. Keith occasionally gave away some of his retirement largesse. He contributed a month's worth of cost-of-living adjustments to the town of West Bridgewater, Mass., for a new library, and he made contributions to the West Bridgewater Historical Society and the University of Vermont, his alma mater. He also paid for the nonprofit organization he founded, Public Employee Pension Systems, out of his own pocket.

Hastings Keith was born in Brockton and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1938. During World War II, he graduated from Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and served in the Army in Europe on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff.

In 1946, he began a career in the insurance industry, working for Equitable Life Assurance Society and becoming a full partner in the Roger Keith and Sons Insurance business in Brockton. After serving for four years in the Massachusetts State Senate, he was elected to Congress in 1958.

In Congress, he was an early Republican supporter of Medicare and one of the first Republicans to oppose the Vietnam War. Representing Cape Cod, he sponsored the 1961 House version of a bill to establish the Cape Cod National Seashore. He also sponsored legislation to expand the Merchant Marine fleet.

He worked to save the cranberry industry during the "Great Cranberry Scare" of 1959. When the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about traces of a carcinogenic chemical weedkiller that had been found on some lots of Pacific Northwest cranberries, the industry nearly collapsed. Mr. Keith's congressional district produced about half the nation's cranberries at the time, so to prove that the berries were safe, he and his family drank nothing but cranberry juice for weeks.

He retired from Congress in 1972 and founded his nonprofit organization in 1978.

"He kept at it. He did not give up," said Charles Peters, founding editor of Washington Monthly and a persistent critic of the federal pension system. "Age usually counsels the abandonment of hope. Hastings nobly refused that counsel."

Mr. Keith's first wife, Louise Harriman, died in 1973. His second wife, Frances Bland Jackson, died in 1989.

Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Barbara Clapp Keith of Monument Beach, Mass.; two daughters from his first marriage, Helen Harriman Keith of Burlington, Vt., and Carolyn Keith Silvia of Bridgewater; a brother; and three grandsons.

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