In his 34-year career in the House of Representatives, one that will end in retirement this year, Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) has slogged his way through many a legislative battle. But one that never happened remains, for him, especially memorable.
He wishes that he had been speaker of the House in the 1960s so that he could have fought it out with President Johnson.
"I think I might have been able to fight him down," Bolling mused recently. "I thought Johnson was absolutely brilliant at first, in handling the transition after the John F. Kennedy assassination , but then the bad side of Lyndon took over. He wanted everything and he wanted it done now.
"I have always thought that so many of our problems stem from that time of his excesses -- the economic troubles and the decline in respect for political leadership," he said, frowning deeply as if replaying in his mind the imaginary, epic battle. "I think it is conceivable that I might have had some impact."
Then Bolling laughed: "Oh, I don't know. Lyndon would probably have wiped me out."
Much of Bolling comes through in this recollection, his combativeness, his high regard for the speakership, his desire to act on a big stage, his familiarity with defeat. They are traits that have made him a large force in the House for three decades, since the early days when the legendary Sam Rayburn took him under his wing and anointed him a lieutenant.
Bolling was in the middle of the early (successful) fights to pass civil rights legislation and he has led the (largely unsuccessful) campaign to restructure the House committee system. For 27 years he has wielded inside power as member and lately chairman of the House Rules Committee. He is one of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill's closest advisers and it is hard to recall anyone who, without being chosen either speaker or majority leader, has exercised so much influence in the House.
Yet he never won what in his mind is the big prize, the office of speaker. In 1976, he waged an unsuccessful campaign for majority leader, usually the stepping-stone to the speakership. Many members are quick to say that if talent were the only trait needed, Bolling would have been speaker long ago. He has never won, they add, because of an abrasive personality that over the years has alienated enough votes to elect a dozen speakers.
There is plenty on the record to support that judgment, and even Bolling acknowledges that the "abrasive" label is not altogether undeserved. He was a public critic of the late Speaker John W. McCormack (D-Mass.). He once bawled out a colleague for the manner in which he distributed congressional campaign funds.
His 1966 book, "House Out of Order," was an unrelenting assault on veteran committee chairmen ("A few autocrats," he called them). It also contained caustic characterizations of certain familiar House "types": "fence straddlers" who avoided taking positions, "totalitarian" intellectuals unwilling ever to compromise, and smoothies who used their offices to pursue donations from special interests.
"Dick has had a big impact on the House, but he would not win many popularity contests," observes one Democrat who admires Bolling's diligence and skill. "He is sometimes abrasive, arrogant and moody and he is not a politician who glad-hands. He is a very blunt, forcefully spoken, partisan Democrat."
"Dick is the most brilliant [Rules Committee] chairman I can remember and the most innovative, which can be both good and bad," recalls Rep. John J. Rhodes (Ariz.), who was for a time ranking Republican member of the committee. "But he has qualities that are not endearing. He doesn't suffer a fool gladly. It's the personal thing, I guess, that has kept him from the leadership."
Bolling is reconciled to such judgments. "I don't mind being abrasive," he said. "Rayburn was always trying very hard to get me to be more friendly. He'd tell me I had to be more popular up here. The truth of the matter is that I always recognized that failing, if it was one."
He earned his reputation first, he recalls, while "twisting arms" for Rayburn and it clung to him during the crucial votes on civil rights legislation. Bolling employed the "buddy system" to keep track of how members voted in those days, when many key votes were not recorded.
"It was our way to check on how they voted and they couldn't get away with that crap of saying one thing and voting another. I've still got enemies around here who go back to that time. I wouldn't change it. There's every evidence that I'm widely respected on this Hill and that's what matters."
Bolling has always played a curious role in the House, the insider who is also the candid, detached critic. He was fond of McCormack personally while deploring McCormack's weak leadership, he says. He has long striven for an institutional arrangement which would strengthen the speaker's office and his only criticism of his mentor, Rayburn, is that Rayburn refused to seek more institutional power to run the House.
A skill in using House procedures while trying constantly to reshape them is the trait that most members regard as Bolling's forte. "He believes that procedure supports substance," observes Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), an admirer.
As Rules Committee chairman, he has crafted rules to enhance the speaker's power, although they have been only sporadically successful during the Reagan presidency, when conservative Democrats have bolted to the White House side. Early this year he fashioned an extraordinary rule allowing separate votes on seven different budget proposals, with successful amendments being applied to all seven. Eventually, all seven budgets were defeated on the floor.
Bolling is not a man given to small thoughts, and his post-retirement plan is to write a book that will somehow deal both theoretically and pragmatically with the entire scope of American politics and government. A partial list of his literary goals includes reorganization of both the House and Senate and the relationship of both to the White House.
He talks, somewhat mystically, of trying to "put together the pieces" of the American political system, which he thinks works chaotically at best.
"I've had this extraordinary opportunity of being at the center of action for 30 years," Bolling recalls. "Truman and Rayburn were my patrons. It gives me a long-enough view. All kinds of people write all kinds of things about the pieces of power, but no one has tried to look at the whole thing since the Constitution was written. No one else is doing this. We haven't come to any conclusions about how all the pieces of government ought to work together.
"I'm struck by how complicated this country is. I was born in New York of parents who came from LaCrosse, Wis., and Huntsville, Ala. I went to Sewanee and studied archeology in the West. This country is so much more varied than anyone realizes. That's what my book is all about.
Emerging suddenly from his stream of consciousness and recognizing that it perhaps sounded immodest, Bolling added: "I guess it is a little presumptuous, isn't it?"