New England lost two of its finest politicians over the weekend, Silvio Conte of Massachusetts and Bill Dunfey of New Hampshire. Conte was a Republican -- although not so you would notice it -- and Dunfey was a Democrat to his bones in a relentlessly Republican state.
To a generation of reporters, Bill Dunfey was the New Hampshire primary. The place to stay was his family's hotel, the Wayfarer, in Bedford. It was full of reporters and full of Dunfeys, Bill being one of 12, and there was always a brother around to pass on the latest political gossip.
Bill Dunfey was involved with another large Irish clan from the first time he met a skinny congressman. He prevailed upon Jack Kennedy to show his stuff by entering the New Hampshire primary in 1960. In 1968, he was with Bobby Kennedy, and in 1980, when his brothers were supporting Jimmy Carter, Bill chose to stand with Teddy.
A personal note about Bill Dunfey: He was responsible for my being right, in advance, about a political outcome for the first and only time in my life. In 1968, all the reporters around the Wayfarer Bar were writing that Eugene McCarthy's anti-war presidential bid was a joke. "He doesn't even know where the I Corps is" they said contemptuously over their scotch, forgetting that McCarthy wanted to remove them as swiftly as possible from wherever it was.
What was supposed to sink McCarthy conclusively was the invasion of college students knocking on doors on his behalf. New Hampshire's celebrated xenophobia was cited as decisive in what was supposed to be a lopsided contest with a president staging a write-in campaign. I was accepting this conventional wisdom until Bill Dunfey, who was neutral in the race as befitted a former Democratic national committeeman, set me straight. "Remember, Mary," he said, "old people like young people."
The day of the primary, we talked again. "I have seen something I never saw before," he said. "I drove across the state, and at every crossroads, I saw young people standing with literature outside polling places, holding the flag." McCarthy did not win the primary, but he polled an astonishing 42 percent of the vote.
Bill Dunfey taught me a lesson about the importance of being open to new information.
Bill Dunfey was a spectacularly pleasant man, even-tempered, civil on all occasions. He was a businessman and a successful one -- the Dunfeys founded a hotel chain and once owned Aer Lingus -- but his passion was politics. The Dunfeys wanted to make a difference. They founded the New England Forum and brought speakers in from everywhere. Bill Dunfey was the first New Hampshire businessman to fight the nuclear power plant in Seabrook. When he was already sick with cancer, he founded a magazine called The Spectator, a lively review of the political scene in New Hampshire.
Silvio Conte loved politics, too, and he saw it as a force for good. He had the greatest virtue that can be possessed by a public man. He did not take himself seriously. He was irreverent and uninhibited, the only Republican and the only member of Congress who ever put on a pig's snout on the House floor to describe the greed of the breed at the public trough.
A fellow traveler remembers his greeting to Pope John Paul I at the Vatican. "Hello," he said, thrusting out a hand, "I'm Sil Conte from the first district of Massachusetts, and this is Mario Biaggi, the toughest cop in New York."
He took to writing verse when the House ran late and tension was high. He composed a ditty on the budget resolution. Although he felt strongly about many things, his saltiest expletive was "goldarn." He voted so often with the Democrats -- 71 percent of the time -- that they regarded him as one of their own. He was the only Republican in the Massachusetts delegation and much loved.
The reason he had views -- unusual for a Republican, especially a House Republican -- about the benevolence of government was his own experience. He came back from World War II service as a Seabee and, under the GI Bill, went to college. It changed his life. He fought like a tiger for Vietnam veterans who he felt had been victimized by an unpopular war. He would contrast his own return, which was celebrated by his Italian family with a week of feasting, with the sorry homecoming of Vietnam veterans, "with their heads down and their coat collars up."
He was one of three House Republicans to vote against the Persian Gulf War. His last vote, on Jan. 30, was for a pay raise for VA dentists and doctors.
Two more decent men than Sil Conte and Bill Dunfey never lived. Politics is diminished without them.