Pete Williams came here to do good and he did it, as best he knew how and as well as any.
He came first as a kid out of college, then ducked away to fight a war for four long years. He came next as a congressman who said he worried about kids and what made them go wrong, then was banished in an Eisenhower landslide.
He came finally as a senator, at the time of the best and the brightest at a time when no problem seemed beyond solving, and so he poured himself into bills on health care and black-lung disease, migrant workers and minimum-wage increases, the worries of the aged and the plight of the underprivileged.
Sen. Harrison A. (Pete) Williams Jr. was a white hat, a good guy. He was part of the Washington story, which has many chapters, all enriched with subplots. The Williams chapter began in Jersey and ended in Brooklyn, but it was part of the Washington story.
It ended last night, the white hat in the dock, Pete Williams convicted in a federal court in New York of selling the dream, the first incumbent U.S. senator found guilty of a criminal charge since 1905.
To the end, Williams insisted that the government had done it to him and, as in all good stories, you could read that one either way and conclude that he was right.
It was so heady, that dance in the clouds of Camelot, that pirouette in the governmental goodness of the Great Society, those endless Pete Williams bills that drew endless editorials that said good going, Pete, for sending federal bucks in to help the coal miners, the Chicanos and the kids he came here to save.
Then the other kind of bills began to come in -- dun letters for goodness that didn't always work, bills for expectations that were raised too high too quickly and ended in riots, pay orders for a war the best and the brightest said had to be fought but couldn't end -- an accumulation of bills America is still paying.
And the evening champagne of Camelot turned to morning bourbon instead.
Harrison Arlington Williams Jr. beat the system to come here. He came from New Jersey, a state that was enough to make anyone worry about kids, a place of which Woody Allen once said: "A certain intelligence governs our universe -- except for parts of New Jersey."
It was the home of the mob and machine politics, neither of which ever seemed able to smudge the white hat from Plainfield. In fact, he bucked them and beat them. He beat a lot of problems.
When Williams first entered politics, New Jersey was divided into political spheres of influence the way the Allies and the Soviets divided postwar Europe. Democratic bosses didn't tinker in Republican territory, Republican warlords didn't mess around on Democratic turf.
But Williams plowed into a Republican congressional district in a 1953 special election and gave it to the Democrats for the first time in 20 year. He won a full term in 1954, then went under, narrowly, in the 1956 Eisenhower landslide.
When he came back in 1958 for a try at a Senate seat, the Democratic bosses, especially John V. Kenny of Hudson County, didn't want any part of him. Kenny, a man reputed to keep $700,000 in cash in his home just to keep the business going, was accustomed to getting his way. He determined who came and who went.
Once, when a Kenny crony was forced to resign as mayor of Jersey City, the departing mayor said so goes it and he had been "proud to be a puppet of John V. Kenny."
There was a touch of wonderful irony, the kind of irony that would forever touch Williams' political life, when Williams gathered the political support for his Senate race. He attached himself to Gov. Robert Meyner, who owed everything to Kenny and was looking for more.
Meyner had first reached for the governorship in 1953, lost every county in New Jersey except one -- Kenny's Hudson County. Kenny delivered Hudson big, so big that Meyner overwhelmed the rest of the state and won the Democratic primary. By 1958, however, Meyner was moving beyond Kenny. He had his eyes on the 1980 presidential nomination, and used Williams as proof of his coattail appeal.
And so Williams went to Washington, this time to stay. Meyner dropped by the national wayside, in the lustrous wake of John F. Kennedy, and Williams became the Camelot spear-carrier of the golden-boy president.
The Williams bill spewed out: the good, liberal bills so fitting the times. The accolades, the good-guy editorials and plaudits, poured in. Only a few wondered why Williams, this effervescent man of the '60s, didn't quite make it on the national platform that Washington opened to him. Only a few wondered about this slightly reclusive man who turned down talk show appearances early in the morning and after working hours.
Only a few talked about the crumbling marriage, marriages being so fragile in this city of many chapters, many subplots; marriages being almost irrelevant when true good was being done. People talked, but never wrote, about such things. There was so much more to be proud of as the government marched on true problems.
In 1968 the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP publicly condemned the champion of the minorities for "behavior not becoming a U.S. senator." No one wrote that Pete Williams showed up dead drunk for a speech. Washington is hard on people, no need to rub it in, and other things were happening.
The best of the best and the brightest were facing disillusioning failure, all the evening champagne was turning to morning bourbon -- in the streets, in the jungles, in the tax bills.
By 1970 his first marriage was on the rocks, his senatorial opponent was running as "the sober candidate" and Williams came out of the alcoholic closet, went public and stopped drinking. The editorials lauded him for his guts in admitting his problem. He won again.
By 1973 he was divorced, by 1974 married again, to an aide on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, through which most of the white-hat legislation moved.
Jeanette was a striver, a woman who helped her man beat alcoholism and come into the real world. She earned $34,000 as a committee aide. She also earned $50,000, according to the chairman of Hardwicke Cos., helping the company seek financing for a New Jersey gambling casino.The executive said the fees, if anything, were low.
By 1978 the man who came here to help kids and the underprivileged bought a $372,000 home on R Street. By 1979 the U.S. equistrian team performed at his 60th birthday party, and the guests were taken from the stables in ornate carriages to a dinner party at which the butter was molded into yellow roses and attached to stems from which the true roses had been discarded.
A few weeks after that, newspaper articles out of New Jersey said Williams was thinking of leaving Washington and returning to the state of the mob, the bosses and the casinos to run for governor. Some said he was giving up because the dream was over. Others said Jeanette wanted to be a first lady. Others said it all was newspaper talk.
A few weeks after that, the Abscam "sting" story broke. The editorials were pained now; not harsh, pained. Washington is hard on people, no need to rub it in.
The Senate rallied around. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) said bribe-takers should be "kicked out of Congress promptly." Proxmire also said Williams had been "outrageously and unfairly treated," that he had led "a lifetime of honesty and probity." The government had done it to him.
From then on, Williams maintained his innocence, writing off the FBI tapes as Washington talk, joking about it. He had been trying to find a way to spike the governor's race rumors, he said. "Somehow, I think I may have overdone it," he added, and everyone laughed.
As his trial in Brooklyn, not one senator was called as a character witness; just little people, like the jury, like the people Pete Williams had come here to help, not people who buttered their bread with yellow roses.
Sixty-one years earlier, when Williams was born, his parents had sent a telegram to his grandfather. "Harrison Arlington Williams Jr. just born," it said. The grandfather thought that was a bit grand for a kid to carry around.
"How's Pete?" he wired back.
Last night, in Brooklyn, Pete said he was just fine. The government has done it to him.