Like a large ventilation shaft, the enthusiasm of Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) for politics had a pulling power of inrushing force. I was drawn to him, as were many others in the press, by his swift candor and his unstudied leaps into gray issues, getting grayer, that he believed deserved black-and-white solutions.
Rosenthal, a tall, slender man who could move through masses of people at political gatherings like a current through water, died of cancer Colman McCarthy the other day at 59. He was beginning his third decade of service to a section of Queens, N.Y., that ranged from the urban brittleness of Jamaica to the oaked side streets of Forest Hills.
One of my last conversations with Rosenthal, early last summer, was about his cancer. He had been fighting it for nearly two years and now, like a palm pulled away from a candle flame, he thought its pain was gone. I asked if he would be interested in joining a group of cancer patients who met weekly with some psychiatrists who also had cancer. It was attitude therapy, the goal being to use one's mental attitude to strengthen the body's immune system against cancer cells. The group would have welcomed him.
"Yeah, yeah," Rosenthal said in Queens diction, "I oughtta go, and I know my wife would want me to. But I pass."
He explained, bulldozing away a pile of polite excuses, that he was too restless a fellow to sit for a couple of hours hashing over his illness. It would be too much talking about himself with other people talking about themselves. I told him he was oversimplifying. Of course he was, he laughed, but too many other things demanded his attention besides his body.
During the 1970s, one of the core goals to which Rosenthal and other congressional liberals paid attention was legislation for a consumer protection agency. A modest restoration of marketplace fairness was due the consumer in this age of the recall. Citizens didn't need a selling job on the need for an agency: Polls showed they wanted it by nearly 2 to 1.
Rosenthal pressed one argument: "Today's typical consumer is tempted into the marketplace by promises of product perfection. But the system that produces, promotes, sells and services that product can more accurately be characterized by the reality of planned obsolescence and poor quality control."
The legislation, which at one time passed the Senate 74 to 4 and a House committee 24 to 4, became a victim of the antiregulation mood change. Rosenthal saw nearly a decade of effort swept away by the suddenly popular appeal of the well-bankrolled argument that big government was the enemy and another government agency wouldn't help. The day Rosenthal died, a news story told of General Motors, a leader in denunciations of federal regulation, being involved in still another recall of lemons.
On occasion, Rosenthal was abrupt. He could vent sarcasm on the hypersubtle strategist. But that wasn't the tone of his personality. He was warm-hearted once the Queens scrappiness was penetrated. Four years ago, when Michael Pertschuk, then the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, saw his agency being pummeled out of shape by the beltings of Congress, he sought out Rosenthal for advice.
"Get up here," Rosenthal told him. "Let them see that you are not crazy. And it would help if you would make yourself a few friends--the House is a very personal place."
His own philosophy of politics also stressed the personal. As a senior member of the Government Operations Committee, he knew how to organize committee investigations that would publicize the victimization of citizens by unethical companies. He had no patience with nebbishes who charged that he was knee-jerk antibusiness. He was pro-business, he would shoot back; marketplace honesty benefited the ethical merchants because it decreased the competitive edge held by the companies that cheated consumers.
On the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rosenthal was a dam-burst of energy for human rights. As a frequent visitor to Israel, he came to love the country for its ideals. Last summer, the violent excesses of the Begin government in Lebanon strained him considerably. He was a friend of Israel but he would not be a blind friend. He saw that much had gone wrong.
Rosenthal died courageously. Some 80 Senate and House members attended his funeral in Queens. This large display of affection equaled the large service Ben Rosenthal gave to the country.