They were cleaning out some antiquated books, no longer useful for reference, in The Washington Post's library the other day, when a colleague rescued -- and diverted to me -- a book he thought I'd appreciate: Cannon's Procedure in the House of Representatives, 1935 edition. Dry as dust as casual reading matter, but useful as all-get-out for a student of House operations, it evokes strong memories for a reporter who covered Congress when its author, Clarence Cannon, was a power there.
Before being elected to Congress in 1922 as a Democrat from Missouri, Cannon had been the House parliamentarian. When I observed him up close, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee prior to his death in 1964, he could have doubled for Doc in Walt Disney's "Snow White" -- a gnomelike figure, bulbous nose and all, and he talked garbledy-like as Doc did, too.
Gee, one hates to live in the past, but it seems to me that congressmen 20 and 30 years ago were -- how to put it? -- greater characters than the ones we have today.
There was Rep. Clare E. Hoffman (R-Mich.), the irascible and outspoken conservative, who had suits tailored without pockets, hence his moniker "no pockets" Hoffman. There was Rep. H.R. Gross (R-Iowa), now living in retirement in Arlington, who was a constant scold. And Rep. Vito Marcantonio (D-American Labor-N.Y.), a vibrant, pink-hued gadfly. There were more than a few wild cards. Two come easily to mind. Rep. John E. Rankin (D-Miss.), who could charmingly display a gardenia to friends while, hours later, viciously denouncing integration. And there was Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) -- handsome and charismatic -- who let personal priorities subvert the power he could have exerted for his black constituency.
The colorful House speaker, Tip O'Neill, one of the last of the old breed, will retire at the end of this term. As such as O'Neill go, Congress becomes less fun to watch.