When he isn't pouring drinks these days and evenings, Ed Beard pours C forth words: about his three terms in Washington as a congressman, his local scrapes as a buck-the-machine pol, his defeat last November after he let himself be packaged by a public relations firm, and his new career as a bar owner and bartender.
He is a footnote in American political history. On losing his seat in Congress, the former house painter went back to being a working stiff -- not a $100,000 front man for one of the Washington trade associations that trade in laid-off congressman, not a lobbyist cooking deals with his old subcommittees and, above all, not another political outpatient chronically ill from Potomac fever and too ailing to get out of Washington before it becomes fatal.
Beard is 41, a one-time prizefighter who gave a thumb in the eye to the Democratic machine of Rhode Island when he ran against it in 1974. He has gone back to the people with a vengeance. His bar, Batter's Choice, is in a blue-collar neighborhood in a town of laborers. When the Archie Bunkers, Ralph Cramdens and Martys come in to slake what are apparently immense thirsts -- the mile-square community of Central Falls on the rim of Providence is said to have one of the highest concentrations of saloons in America -- the ex-Congressman is behind the bar.
While serving his constituents, he rings up the sales for customers and signs receipts for brewery salesmen. On delivery days, he may be out directing traffic for beer trucks. They clog the narrow street in front of Beard's place like limousines hauling Republicans to another White House dinner.
Batter's Choice is a boxy structure, painted in dull-as-can-be brown, and stationed squatly under a triple-decker clapboard apartment house that has second- and third-story porches. House plants are in the window nearest the door. In the other two, neon signs shine "Miller High Life" and "Bud Is On Tap."
The other afternoon -- a slow one with no more action than an elderly pensioner taking his time over a sandwich and Bud, and a woman and child in the back room putting down a quarter for a game of pool -- Beard told his barmaid to take over. He came over to a corner table to talk.
He wore a blue T-shirt with "South Kingston Marine Tech" on the front, blue jeans and black shoes. His nose carries the flatness from his boxing days. He is short, a light middleweight whose toughest fight now is against the poundage around his waist that looks to be ahead on points. This day, Beard was battling back by eating a tomato for lunch.
He is an outgoing man of no pretensions to profundity. He is proud of his Irish stock, his years of painting houses and his liberal voting record in Congress. Batter's Choice, which Beard bought for $67,000 after cashing in a $25,000 congressional pension, is wood-paneled and roomy. In late winter at a 15-minute hearing before the city council, the man who was once the Second District's leading politician still had the clout to win a unanimous vote on his request for a liquor license. The only objection came from a local citizen who grouched that Central Falls would be better off with fewer bars, not more. It was explained that this wasn't a new bar, only a new owner, and one who promised the council that with his "on-the-job-training" he would be "a good neighbor."
Last March on St. Patrick's Day, Beard, with the green-white-orange flag of Ireland over the bar, opened for business. On the wall facing the tiered rows of liquor bottles over the cash register are a dozen photographs of Beard with Gerald Ford, Ted Kennedy, Carl Albert and other Kings of the Hill whose elbows he once rubbed. A framed copy of the Veterans Survivors Pension Adjustment Act of 1976, which Beard cosponsored, has a place of honor on the wall at the end of the bar.
Beard, old juices stirring, began talking about his former trade, not his current one. Economically this is "a middle-class down" neighborhood. ". . .I think people -- what they are experiencing, their impressions -- is that the tax break was for the middle income up. They are concerned about Reagan's insensitivity towards the poor. People have enjoyed, in a sense, a prosperity in the last 10 years. As a matter of fact, this generation probably isn't even aware of the old street riots that we had a few years back -- because of the poverty, no jobs and so on. But the danger is that the cities could erupt again -- the poor neighborhoods, the whites, the blacks, the Chicanos -- because they feel threatened with Reaganism that seems to be, on the surface, very popular with a lot of people. Until it affects them.
An honest pol now working 15-hour days to earn an honest buck, Beard confesses that he does have thoughts of a comeback -- maybe for his old seat, which he lost to Claudine Schneider whom he beat in 1978, maybe for the mayor of Providence, the latter being more likely. He will be taking polls soon. "But in the meantime, life goes on. People come in here and it's like I never left the place. I have people come in and they have problems with immigration, they have problems with SBA loans. So I have to call Sen. (Claiborne) Pell's office once. I set up appointments. I'm like the middleman now. I'm still a congressman to an awful lot of people. The best I can do is referrals. One fellow -- it was a very simple thing to me but it was a big thing for him -- wanted a flag. You know, one of those flown over the Capitol. He didn't know how to go about it. So I called Sen. Pell's office, sent the check in -- it was about six change -- for the flag. It was flown over, they sent it back to me and I gave it to him. He thought it was great."
In his congressional days, Beard was as proud of his housepainting past as other members were of their Ph.Ds. Where they splashed their degrees on the wall, Beard put a paintbrush on display in his Cannon building office. His colleagues called him "Michaelangelo".
A few resented Beard's eagerness to flaunt his workingman genes. It often came off as a pose of anti-intellectualism, as if Beard wanted people to know that he was the congressman who didn't love Flaubert.
The resentment surfaced two weeks before Beard was to lose to Schneider. The Providence Bulletin carried a page one story by John Mulligan revealing that Democrats have their Eleventh Commandment, too: speak ill of another Democrat whenever possible. One party elder put down Beard as "just one vote. He's not sought out for anything other than those issues that fall directly within the jurisdiction of his subcommittee." Another party member dismissed him as "a real third-stringer in a first-string game."
For the hometown reporters, Beard was can't-miss copy. It was a 25 inch story when Beard's old Latin teacher from Assumption parish grade school, Sister Vincent Mary of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, came to Washington to visit her now-famous pupil. It was a festive reunion. "She was known for her left hook," Beard said of Sister Vincent Mary.
Beard rated a story when he hired a former Miss World-USA titleholder as his assistant press secretary. Beard, atune to the times, insisted that the young beauty could type and take shorthand.
Beard reminisced about his six years in Washington. "Things were going pretty good for me," he said, mentioning that he was one of the organizers of the Blue Collar Caucus. "It served a purpose . . . it sent notice to the public that there were some members who had not necessarily legal backgrounds of being a lawyer . . . I had become chairman of Labor Standards, which was a committee that was very blue-collar oriented: minimum wage, workmen's compensation, occupational disease."
Nursing the tomato, which was tender and forced Beard to lean over when he bit into it to avoid juice drips on his shirt, more and more recollections of Congress came out. Beard was a liberal -- with respectable ratings from the Americans for Democratic Action on his three terms. On abortion, though, he bolted: "Pro-life. I would be in tune with Reagan on that issue. Although he talked it strongly during the campaign, he's been marginal (since) as far as his push goes. I was a conferee on the Pregnancy Disability bill that passed Congress a year or two ago. They wanted to provide disability benefits for women who wanted to have abortions. I stopped that."
Mingled among the satisfactions of remembering yesterday's politics were the pains of defeat. Beard tells of being promised a state job but that the governor -- J. Joseph Garrahy, a Democrat -- and the party "went back on their word, they let me down." After losing last November, Beard had looked into the Rhode Island plum book and saw himself well qualified for posts involving labor, the elderly or veterans. In the General Assembly, Republicans, as subtle as barroom brawlers, said that Beard should be kept off the state payroll: "The voters didn't want him," said the House minority leader, "and he immediately thinks he is entitled to a high-paying state job."
A job never came. Beard has regularly denounced Garrahy for leading him on and then letting him down completely. But it's an old fight, and Beard knew better than to throw any more punches at what is now just air. The challenge ahead is to be the best barkeep ever to set them up in Central Falls. "It's a struggle being a small businessman," he said. "I used to sit there at breakfasts and dinners in Washington listening to them. They'd come from small business associations from all over the country. And you listen and you listen and you listen. But now, being on the other end of it, it's tough. You've got your taxes, you're trying to balance your budget . . . "
After his defeat, Beard spoke openly about his "terrible political loss." He had reason to be dazed. After winning his first election -- as an outsider running as a people's choice long-shot -- with about 78 percent of the vote, he repeated that in 1976 with a victory that had the land sliding with a similar percentage. But in 1978, though a winner still, he managed only a 52 percent margin. It made him nervous.
He recollects, wistfully, that he then committed his greatest mistake: "Public relations. In '78, a few things went off and didn't go the way they should have gone in the campaign. That was the beginning. And then I became packaged. A lot of people perceived that I became like one more politician. That's what defeated me. My success, I believe, should have been, and would have been, continued success, if I had stuck to my original way of doing things -- without public relations, being free in what I wanted to say at the time I wanted to say it without having to worrying about someone saying 'Don't say this' or 'Don't say that, it's not good for your image.' I was the type of person you couldn't package."
Beard spoke of his first two elections when he ran as the choice of the little guy, not the big machine. "I was doing it my own way. Whatever my comeback chances are will be based on that same premise again. People love the fact that -- to give an example of a turnaround -- when I didn't get the state job, and I finally told Garrahy to take the job and shove it, publicly -- and I did this on my own, I bought (this place) on my own, and I'm working here, and they come in here and see me like this, they say 'Good for him, he's not obligated.' That's the type of thing that got me going in the first place."
Beard was asked how he gave in to the temptation of seeking an image-maker to get reelected. "After a few terms in the Congress most people who run for public office have a public relations firm to put the campaign together. I was starting to be convinced -- by well-meaning people -- that maybe it's time to be packaged -- I had become more moderate in my approach -- and take on a more statesmanlike image for the campaign. That's what people wanted. But people didn't really want that. Because what they voted in was not a traditionalist. They voted in someone who was going to go down there and raise some hell to get things done. And the perception of Eddie Beard was that Eddie Beard had become mellow and Eddie Beard had become like all the others."
It was a poignant moment, a defeated man speaking soulfully of his rejection of his own best instincts and then seeing others reject him because of that. He took the blame himself. He had no hard words for the voters, much less for the woman who beat him. Astonishingly, as though he were just another constituent who had a personal note from a politician on high, Beard points to a framed letter hanging over the bar. It was from first-term Congresswoman Schneider, dated March 17: "Dear Eddie: Top of the morning to you! Sorry I couldn't be there to enjoy a green beer with you when you open your newest business venture, but please add the attached to your first day's receipts. What a wonderful day to open a business of this type. Best of luck, Claudine." Enclosed was a dollar bill, autographed.
With enough firewater on the premises to drown his political sorrows and those of every other liberal defeated in 1980, Beard is a happy surprise: He neither drinks nor regrets. He may even be a minor miracle in American politics. He is able to be both sober and funny at the same time. He talked merrily of how his business would boom if a few of his former colleagues would come to work for him during congressional recesses. Tip O'Neill would be sworn in as chief bartender and Daniel Rostenkowski would be the bouncer. Republicans would be welcomed, too: John Erlenborn on the cash register and Peggy Heckler as a singing barmaid.
What about Ted Kennedy? Beard smiles. Just a visit "when he's in the area" would be plenty. It would be a modest political payoff. Beard was one of the group of four congressman who, long before anyone else -- in the spring of 1979 -- publicly called on Kennedy to challenge Carter. The party evened the score for that eye poke, too, though Beard remembered it with more good humor than the governor's snub. On a visit to Rhode Island, Jimmy Carter flew in with the four members of the state's congressional delegation. On leaving, Beard was told to stay behind: "He left me on the runway -- wouldn't allow me in the car, wouldn't allow me in the plane!"
Carter, Beard acknowledges, may have had other reasons for avoiding his company. Once at a White House meeting in which the president went around the table asking congressmen for their assessment of him, Beard said he passed. "Carter went on to the next guy, and then came back to me and said, 'What do you think, what's your opinion?' I said, 'You really want to know? I think you're a disaster. I don't think you're gonna make it. My people are telling me on the streets, you've had it' . . . After, he came up to me and he said 'Well, I appreciate your frankness.' But he never really did, because I was off the White House invited list from that day on. I was gone. I got there once, I think, toward the end -- for an outdoor picnic."
As his own host now, Beard has a taste for inviting the crowds himself. On Thursday nights, he has "beer blasts" when for $2 it's all you can drink in an hour. On Saturday nights, it's $3 for two hours. Beard's barmaid, a middle-aged woman named Pat Bannon, whose family owned a neighborhood bar nearby, says the customers have taken to the new owner "very well. I thought at the beginning, maybe him being a congressman, and the other man who was here had a different approach to people than he has, I thought maybe it wouldn't go over good. The elderly people show a lot of respect for him, because Eddie did so much for the elderly people . . . The young ones at night, he's just Eddie: 'Hi, Eddie, how are ya.' They know he was a congressman, but as long as he didn't change the decor . . ."
Except for the gallery of wall photos and some paintings of his son, Beard has left Batter's Choice decorated as the customers like it. He packaged himself once and saw it turn to disaster. He has no intention of packaging his bar.
The money isn't bad. "I would say that it will probably show at the end of the year that, even though I don't require as much money as I needed when I was in the Congress and keeping two homes and living in two locations, that I will do as well as I did when I was in the Congress financially. My take-home, my end of it, will probably be as great. I won't lose. For a neighborhood bar, I sort of struck oil."
Among the mechanics, cabbies and plumbers of Central Falls, Beard's return offers a useful loss to the Democrats. He is back with the people who were traditionally the strength of the party. In Batter's Choice, as Ed Beard is discovering, when a workingman comes and talks to the bartender about his grievances as a citizen -- inflation, the elimination of public services and programs, tax breaks going to the wealthy -- pain is real. Beard is one party loyalist who is listening. He is a Democrat who hasn't forsaken the saloon for the salon.