He seemed larger than life, in the literal sense: he had huge shoulders, a huge head and, most important, a huge voice. Phil Burton will probably be remembered by many of his colleagues in the House bellowing with rage, furious that others were not following his lead, pushing a bill or an amendment or a resolution through by something that looked like brute physical force. Others will remember him as the architect of the partisan redistricting plans which on three occasions he got the California legislature to pass.
But he was more than a brawler: he was one of the most productive national legislators of his generation. His achievements include: the 1978 national parks bill, which created or expanded 34 parks, 12 wilderness areas, eight scenic rivers and four national trails; the Supplementary Security Income program, which augments the income of 4 million aged, blind and disabled people; the black-lung compensation program for miners; making strikers eligible for food stamps; increasing the minimum wage from $2.30 to $3.35.
Inside the House, Burton engineered the abolition of the Un-American Activities Committee and the institution of the practice whereby the Democratic Caucus elects all committee chairmen by secret ballot. He was not the only person who worked to produce these results, but without him most--perhaps all--would not have happened.
He did all these things against the odds, and without much publicity. When he came to Congress in 1965, he was on the farthest left wing of the House; he opposed the war in Vietnam even then. But he was also a skilled vote-counter, an instinctive builder of unlikely alliances and a master of legislative detail.
He was not much known to the world outside Washington and his district in San Francisco; his hot style did not come across well on the cool medium of television. He had a taste for accomplishing things by surreptitious means, and sometimes--as on redistricting--he gloated too much over his cleverness for his own good.
Three things stand out from his record. First, he cared about poor people, and millions of them today are receiving aid because of his efforts. He concentrated less on symbolic efforts than on channeling very large sums of money to those he considered in need. Second, he succeeded legislatively because, in a town where so many people read one-page briefing papers before going into crucial meetings, he took the trouble to learn the details. He liked to boast that he knew more about welfare policy and national parks and California redistricting than anybody else, and he probably did. Finally, despite adversity, even after losing the House majority leadership by one vote in 1976, he never quit working or fighting for what he believed in.
You may or may not agree with what he did, but you have to agree he made a difference.