Mr. Cronkite: Mr. President, what about Mrs. Thomas' question about the Congress being loaded in the upper-middle classes and upper classes and not enough representation from the lower classes. Do you think that's true?
The President: Well, I think once a congressman gets in office now, with a fairly substantial salary, they are obviously in the upper class. So is a President, by the way. I guess, so is an anchorman for CBS . . .
From President Carter's call-in radio show
"I got news for the administration," Rep. Edward Beard (D-R.I.) was saying in his office the other day."There are people here from the streets."
Could this be? A new image for Congress, white-collar bastion of lawyers and entrepreneurs? Has Beard uncovered a large, lost colony of blue-collar legislators?
Well, not quite. But in an effort to form a "blue-collar caucus" that would "reflect the common man's point of view," Beard - a house painter by trade - has searched out about a dozen members of the House of Representatives with blue-collar backgrounds of varying degrees.
He says the caucus would put new emphasis on legislation benefiting blue-collar workers and would encourage persons with blue-collar backgrounds to run for public office.
Not all of Beard's potential recruits are rushing to join up, however, while some of those who have joined can boast only of something less than life-long blue-collar ties.
Rep. Gary Myers (R-Pa.), a former steel plant worker, says, "I don't feel any compelling reason for joining," adding that he has "resources available through our staff" to deal with issues the caucus might take up. An aide to Rep. Harold Johnson (D-Calif.), a former railroad worker, says the congressman "hasn't gotten to that piece of paper yet" and considers the caucus a "low-priority."
Yesterday the blue-collar caucus was officially born with eight members in attendance: Beard, Robert Young (D-Mo.), a longtime pipefitter; Michael Myers (D-Pa.), a former longshoreman; Don Young (R-Alaska), once a riverboat captain; John Burton (D-Calif.), a onetime bartender; Gus Yatron (D-Pa.), who boxed professionally; Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a former printer, and Raymond F. Lederer (D-Pa.), who used to work in a warehouse.
A few others reportedly couldn't make it: Reps. Joseph Gaydos (D-Pa.), glass worker; John Dent (D-Pa.), rubber worker, and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), electrical worker.
Beard, clearly, is not about to erase the white-collar image of Congress: in the 435-member House, 223 hold law degrees and 118 are bankers or businessmen. But Beard says, "there are all sorts of caucuses among the House membership. So why not a workingman's caucus?"
Neither have all Beard's recruits worked the blue-collar jobs exclusively that Beard has associated them with nor do they pretend to have. Kildee, for example, is listed by Beard as an "electrical worker," though his experience, according to an aide, consists of helping install lighting in a foundry in Saginaw in the summer of 1967. Simon may still hold his printer's union card, but he also is known for having owned at one time a chain of 14 weekly newspapers and for writing six books.
An aide to Yatron said the congressman wanted to emphasize that he had never depended for his livelihood on boxing, that he had owned an ice-cream business in Reading, "a very successful business," the aide added.
Don Young, Congress' only river boat captain, said he turned to work on the Yukon River out of necessity, after a court ruling that he could not teach and hold a position in the Alaska state legislature at the same time. He ran barges carrying oil, food and construction supplies for six years. "He's got an incredible sense of direction," said an aide, pointing to Young's knack of avoiding sandbars.
Missouri's Robert Young, one of Beard's first recruits though Young confessed he didn't know Beard before yesterday, has just arrived in Congress after working as a pipefitter since 1946.
Young said his victory made "many people happy . . . The feeling was if Bob Young is here, it's possible for me to do it."
Young added that during his campign he sensed some disenchantment with lawyers, he thinks maybe because of Watergate. "Some people said, 'Boy, I'm glad you're not a lawyer,' although nobody said 'I'm glad you're a building tradesman.'"
Michael Myers, too, can claim distinction as a "man of the people," having worked his way up from steamship cargo checker on the Philadelphia docks. When it comes to Washington social life, Myers said, "I'm not much on that," mainly because he spends much time continuing to be a "man of the people," he commutes almost daily to Philadelphia, where he has office hours three nights a week.
Beard, perhaps, is the best example of what a blue-collar background can do for a fellow. While most becoming a cobbler, Beard settled on house painting after dropping out of high school following the deaths of his father and older sister.
He fought briefly as a junior welter-weight boxer (his idol is Rocky Marciano, whose autographed picture and the crayon he signed it with adorn a table in Beard's office) and worked briefly as a cook in a nursing home until one day, he said, he applied "too much seasoning."
"The Constitution never said you had to be a certain type of person to run for Congress," says Beard, "but we've traditionally had exlusionary politics."
Beard painted his way right into the Rhode Island House of Representatives; even then he'd paint in the morning, change out of his coveralls, and attend legislative sessions in the afternoons.
His trademark is a paint brush, which he carries in his inside coat pocket. "Everybody has asked me about that paint brush, the Speaker of the House, President Ford, Archbishop Makarios. They say, 'Hey, Beard, got that paint brush?'" Beard gives away paint brushes, including one to President Carter, who put it in his pocket.
Beard numbers among his friends the urbane Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell and says, "You know, Pell speaks French, Portuguese, this and that. I tell him for 37 years I've had trouble with one language, English."
The fact is that Beard talks very plainly, as opponents in the last two elections came to understand; he's been charged with being a publicity seeker, though he seemed in the campaigns more a ready-made media event swinging a paint brush.
Just the same, Beard says, "This is a very shaky operation, this politics. Ive seen big ones fall. That's why I'm paid up in my union dues."