David Obey: He really will be missed

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E.J. Dionne
Copyright 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 1:11 PM

It's simultaneously sad and admirable that Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.) announced today that he is retiring from Congress. Sad because there were few members who were more courageous and more substantive in their approach to government. By leaps and bounds, he's one of the members of Congress I have admired most, and for a long time. Oh, yes, Obey could be ornery, and I could imagine that you didn't want to be in his way on a bad day. But Obey was ornery, it usually had a purpose. And he was just such a refreshing break from the sort of politician who polls and focus-groups everything he says or does. Obey was a committed progressive in Wisconsin's great tradition. He never tried to be fashionable. Practical forms of old-fashioned social justice were just fine by him. He'd argue with Republicans, but also with people on his own side when that was necessary. He always knew his stuff. And he wasn't afraid. But what's admirable is that Obey was just as straight-talking and uncompromising in stepping out as he was in all the fights he took on. I just got off the phone with him, and what he offered in our chat was classic Obey. "I'm just worn out," he said. "I'm just worn down." He pondered retirement before, but stayed on because he was angry at what he saw at the "arrogance" of the second President Bush. "I was determined to outlast him," he said. "For years, I said the only reason I was hanging on was to pass health care, and I told people, 'Tell the Republicans if they want me to leave, pass health care.' Well, we passed it." He was insistent that he was not stepping out because he faced his first hard contest in years, from Republican Sean Duffy. "I've won 25 elections, and if anybody thinks I can't win an election against a clone of George Bush, they've got to be smoking something that's illegal," he said. In fact, he argued that any of the six potential Democrats being mentioned would easily hold the seat. "There's no way in hell a progressive district like mine is going to a conservative Republican." But the 71-year-old Obey made no secret of the fact that he's weary. "There's got to be more to life than explaining Senate procedures to angry constituents or begging Blue Dogs to do what they ought to do by rote." Here is a goodbye that Obey earned the right offer: "If you're a good politician, you're used up in causes you believe in, and if you're used up, you step aside." And so he has. I don't think they make politicians like Dave Obey anymore, but I hope that some young politician out there looks to him and decides there is now an enormous vacuum to be filled. All you have to do is believe in what you're saying, master the legislative process, care about important issues, speak candidly and gruffly and be willing to make enemies -- knowing that some people will like you just because you are so uncompromisingly who you are. When older politicians retire, people typically say "he will be missed." This time, they'll mean it.


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