A Steady Hand Guided A Tysons Task Force

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

The push to remake the sprawling canyons of Tysons Corner into a vibrant city where people can walk, dine, work and live could take its biggest step forward today, when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to listen to -- and act on -- the findings of a panel that has been studying the issue for 3 1/2 years.

Standing at the lectern, directing the crucial presentation, will be Clark Tyler, a 74-year-old Sunday school teacher and longtime Democratic operative. His grandfatherly touch and seasoned political instincts have enabled him to command a refractory 37-member task force responsible for writing one of the most ambitious policy initiatives in county history.

The Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force is an unwieldy collection of boosterish business leaders, skeptical neighbors and advocates for walking, biking and the environment, each with a vision of what Tysons should be. At the helm is Tyler, a direct descendant of the president of the same name and a man whose political career was shaped in part by Watergate: It was his office at the complex that was broken into in 1972.

As task force chairman, he has literally walked the walk, regularly traveling on foot the two miles or so between his McLean townhouse and the heart of Tysons, along what he calls the area's "hyphenated" sidewalk system.

Tyler's unwavering determination to submit the most dramatic plan possible has prompted criticism that the task force's conclusions were preordained. Still, his civility has prevented the panel from collapsing altogether.

"He's earned his angel's wings many times over just by doing it," said Rob Jackson, president of the McLean Citizens Association, one of the leading critics of the task force's work. "It's a tremendous public service. However, I'm very frustrated with the process. I've asked, for well over a year now, for access to the information, the assumptions and the underlying conclusions that they're basing their recommendations and their vision on. And we've not been able to get that. And I'm frustrated by that."

Tyler's preparation for his current assignment might have begun in 1972, when he took on a forbidding task for presidential candidate George McGovern's platform committee. He was asked to stage eight public hearings across the country to give voters a chance to comment on what the Democratic Party's positions should be.

"I said, 'This is going to be an unmitigated disaster,' " Tyler recalled. "And I was told: 'I'm glad you said that. Because your job is to make it a mitigated disaster.' "

Tyler has made no secret of the potential for unmitigated disaster on the Tysons Corner task force. But he has also made no secret of what he views as being at stake: the future of Virginia's largest jobs center, which he calls "the blob that ate Northern Virginia" and which he thinks must transform from edge city to real city if it is to survive.

Tyler has peppered his tenure with generous doses of folksy good humor and war stories from a long career in politics and government. In the 1960s, he worked in the U.S. Department of Transportation, the White House and the Appalachian Regional Commission, and he loves to quote Lyndon B. Johnson from those days. One of his favorite LBJisms: "Never load a fellow's pistol when it's pointed at your head." And in the same vein: "Never spit tobacco juice on a piece of cake you may have to eat."

Tyler worked for the Democratic National Committee in the early 1970s, and his office in the Watergate was ransacked during the famous break-in.

"I got back to my office, and the FBI was there," Tyler recalled. "I said, 'It always looks like that.' "

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