The new Senate Office Building bears the name of Philip A. Hart. The building has received its share of what can best be called bad press, with comments ranging from fair and legitimate criticism to the not-so-fair.
As one who was, as the expression goes, "closely associated" with Phil Hart (33 years of marriage, eight children, and now four grandchildren), I hope I will be allowed a comment or two.
First, dear Post editors (Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado may appreciate this, too), please refer to the building as the Hart Building, not Hart. In this instance, building is the noun, and its proper use will save me, our children and friends untold fits of pique. I confess we are overly sensitive on this one detail, but that's what families and friends are for -- sensitivity.
Second, somewhere between the press coverage on the cost overruns and the cavernous, but empty, gymnasium might it not be appropriate to mention a little something about the man? He was, after all, the only senator for whom a building was named while he was still alive. Quite naturally, that point means a lot to us, and we think it might to others as well. Besides, we believe there may be a message of special import, particularly in these times when government, public servants, and politicians seem to be viewed with such widespread cynical disdain.
Hart, the man, practiced politics honorably, and he believed politics was an honorable profession. For those of us interested in the way history will remember him, that is part of what we would like carried to future generations. It is, it seems to us, important, particularly to those who may be considering a career in government and even in Congress.
In his last public appearance, three months before he died in 1976, politics and future generations were themes. His life was ending, and we all knew it.
"I hope that younger people will understand that politics is very dangerous business, but what effective weapon isn't? And it's a weapon that will mean somebody is interested. And if they will just understand that it does not expose them to more than they would be exposed to if they were a teller in a bank or an associate in a law office, then we might be assured of a more constant, steady stream of the best of them . . . and we need them."
At another time, he talked of the role of the politician in government.
"I remember the expression that the politician is the lay priest of society. The corporal works of mercy are part of the business of how the government runs. A solid case can be made that whatever the venality that attaches to the profession, politics is still a high vocation. I have regarded it as an opportunity to make a more humane life for everybody."
Yes, he had faith, but he did not promise overnight solutions.
"It is easier to solve technical problems than social problems. Ten years is enough time to build a spaceship, but it is only a blink of an eye in the history of man's long ascent toward a just and humane society."
Perhaps his most distinguishing trait was his understanding and tolerance of other points of view.
One thing you learn in politics, he said, "is the need to avoid absolutism, especially the notion that your own conclusions must be correct, or whatever you finally decide should be done is what God would do if He were here."
Politics as a high vocation, a sense of history with an eye toward humaneness and justice, and a tolerance for opposing points of view -- those are the principles that guided what he said and did.
In fairness, I suppose I should mention that not long ago I went with one of our children to see the "Taj Mahal." As we considered his reaction to one criticism -- the absence of an easy senatorial escape route -- we found ourselves more than mildly amused.
Too, it is unlikely that he would have approved of the pique and sensitivity of his family and friends. He has been fondly and well remembered in many tributes and memorials. In Michigan, there were trees planted by the Michigan press corps in his name, and the visitors' center at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore also carries it. So does a scholarship fund at Lake Superior State College and here in Washington a lectureship at the Georgetown University Law Center. Each was an appropriate statement of what he did and what he cared about.
Politics is an honorable profession, and government has a necessary and useful role. To hold otherwise courts the risk of self-fulfillment. Politicians and members of Congress are as good and decent as most Americans. Most members believe as he did when he said, "I leave as I arrived, understanding clearly the complexity of the world into which we were born and optimistic that if we give it our best shot, we will come close to the goals set for us 200 years ago."
Credibility, integrity and hope for the future. That was the message of the man and, we will hope, of the building.