Congressmen, says Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.), "are a forgettable lot."
"I still find members who come back here after being gone after a couple of terms, and I have to scratch my memory for their names," he said. "And I have no doubt that I will be just as quickly forgotten as anybody else around here."
Whitehurst, 59, the dean of the Virginia Republican congressional delegation, has said that he may retire after this, his ninth term, although he has made no official announcement.
During his 16 years in Congress, Whitehurst has been neither a power on the Hill nor a mover-and-shaker in the state Republican Party.
But in the once solidly Democratic 2nd Congressional District, which includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Democrats say that he is unbeatable.
Whitehurst, a former college dean once better known as a weekend television commentator, has used strong constituent work and a relatively low profile on major Republican issues to survive in an area where the GOP has been unable to win many local elections.
Since 1976 he has run unopposed, a significant turnaround from his first election in 1968. Politicians and Whitehurst advisers point to many reasons for his success. They say that his resonant voice, quick wit and wavy hair make him an ideal media candidate. He jokingly has referred to himself as "Norfolk's answer to Eric Sevareid."
Some observers say that one key to Whitehurst's success is his wife Janie, a full-time unpaid legislative aide and close adviser who is considered politically savvy and Whitehurst's alter ego.
"I say that if Bill sneezes, Janie gets the flu," said Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Resources Betty J. Diener, who said that she can speak to the two of them interchangeably on issues.
Others credit Whitehurst's personality -- extroverted and unabrasive -- and his tendency to avoid highly controversial or partisan issues, focusing instead on such issues as animal welfare legislation and military bricks-and-mortar for his district.
"I can't think of any strong Republican positions he's taken," said former Virginia lieutenant governor Henry E. Howell Jr., a Norfolk Democrat.
When Whitehurst, a former dean of students at Old Dominion University, is asked why he thinks he has been able to amass and hold support in his district, he answers without hesitation: "I stroke it like mad."
Back in 1968, the 2nd Congressional District consisted of Portsmouth and Norfolk, two cities with large blue-collar and black voting blocs that helped Democrats carry the area in local and national elections.
A bitter struggle within the local Democratic Party helped elect Whitehurst that year, and two years later redistricting replaced Democratic Portsmouth with the generally Republican Virginia Beach.
"When I was elected, there had not been a Republican [congressman from Norfolk] in 38 years, so I knew when I was elected it was a freakish event," said Whitehurst.
When Whitehurst, who has his doctorate in American diplomatic history from West Virginia University, arrived in Washington, he was advised that the key to longevity was not fiery speeches or fine legislation, but constituent services.
"It would have been impossible for me to come here, given the fact that I'm in the minority party, and make my career as a lawmaker, at least starting out that way," Whitehurst explained.
He immediately sought and won a position on the Armed Services Committee, where he could work to funnel money to the numerous military installations in his district.
And he focused his energies on more mundane endeavors, such as helping his constituents get federal jobs, Social Security checks and visas.
Last year the Washington passport office complained to him that his staff was the "worst of all 435 congressional offices for making demands on them," Whitehurst said proudly.
And there is Janie Whitehurst, working extensively on legislation to help military families in the area, sponsoring the major wives' group in the Tidewater Filipino community, and organizing volunteers to help juvenile delinquents and the Norfolk Zoo.
"Janie is the best asset I have," said Whitehurst. "I tell my constituents they get two for the price of one."
His wife, a small-boned, outgoing woman, said simply: "I'm with the old school of wives who go with their husbands."
Whitehurst said that he sometimes feels more like a chaplain than a congressman, hearing from constituents about problems congressmen can do little to solve, such as the woman whose husband was divorcing her because one breast was much larger than the other.
Until recently the Whitehursts' home telephone number was listed in the Norfolk telephone book, and constituents called frequently.
"It was a royal pain, frankly," said Whitehurst. "But I tried to create an image -- and I succeeded in doing so -- of availability . . . of caring about the constituents."
"It's not only that Bill's doing a good job, it's that he's perceived as doing a good job," said Wayne Lustig, a Norfolk lawyer and close friend who has managed every Whitehurst campaign and described them as "the easiest job in the world."
Whithurst describes himself as a "moderate conservative" who is for the Equal Rights Amendment and opposed to abortions, who voted for the Voting Rights Act in 1970 but not later. Democrats say that, for the most part, Whitehurst has avoided strong partisan positions that might spur them into battle against him.
"When you go to a breakfast to raise money for him . . . you'll see all the movers and shakers in the Democratic Party there," said Myra Oberndorf, a Virginia Beach political activist.
Democratic Congressman Norman Sisisky, who represents the neighboring southeastern congressional district including Portsmouth, said that he works closely with Whitehurst.
"When I first got here [in 1982], he and I sat down and decided that we were going to treat our two districts as one district," said Sisisky.
And despite the fact that the rumor of Whitehurst's retirement has raised Democratic hopes of recapturing the seat, Sisisky said, "I know a lot of people are trying to get him to stay for one more term, and if he does decide he wants to retire, I'll probably be one of them."
While Democrats praise Whitehurst's nonpartisan approach, some Virginia Republicans privately chafe under it, complaining that the state Republican agenda loses out. They note that two years ago Republican Virginia congressmen did not receive good committee assignments, and they blame Whitehurst, then the delegation's new GOP dean, for the failure.
Whitehurst agreed that he had not handled his job properly then.
"Two years ago I thought we would go in and talk about how good a person is . . . that we'd pick people on an altruistic basis. Horsefeathers," he said. "This year I traded votes with six other people" and got Rep. Frank R. Wolf on the Appropriations Committee and Rep. Herbert H. Bateman on Armed Services. It's kind of a nasty business, but I've done the job that's demanded of me."
Another learning experience, he related, took place a few years after he had arrived in Congress, when the House Armed Services Committee was about to cut $17 million from funding for a project at the Norfolk Naval Air Station. He went to the chairman of the committee, Rep. F. Edward Hebert (D-La.), to plead for his case on its merits. Hebert abruptly cut him off, wanting to know how a certain editor at a Norfolk paper would react.
Hebert and the editor had been reporters in New Orleans together years earlier.
"I'll look like a real winner with him, Mr. Chairman," said Whitehurst. "Hebert turned to the staff member, snapped his fingers, and said: 'Give it to him.' "
Whitehurst is well liked by most colleagues because "he is congenial and true to his word," said Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Richmond Republican. "He's not ambitious, meaning he's not casting around to run for another office. So to his colleagues, he's not threatening,"
Whitehurst has been approached by Republican leaders in Virginia to run for the Senate and the governorship in the past 12 years.
"I was never motivated to do it," he said. "You have to be very careful in this business not to be flattered into doing something that, perhaps on a clearer examination, you wouldn't do. There's an awfully lot of smoke blown in this business."
Whitehurst recalled that when Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. was a member of the House of Representatives and was thinking of running for the Senate, Trible approached Whitehurst on the House floor.
"He said to me: 'Bill, I want to run for the Senate, but if you want to run in 1982, I won't run.' " Whitehurst reminisced. "And I said, 'Trible, stop blowing smoke at me. It reminds me of the person who's on a European vacation and sends a post card saying, "Wish you were here." That's the last thing they wish. You know very well I'm not intersted in running.' "
Whitehurst said that he will make an announcement in the near future about his plans