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Serving with Giants

August 3, 2020
Weekly Columns

In the long history of our great Republic, neither Congress nor those who serve there have ever been held in high regard. And, if polling is to be believed, the institution and its members have never been more unpopular than they are today.

Yet history also tells us that some of the greatest figures in American history have served in the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, 19 American presidents have served in the People’s House alone – including James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln. More recently, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush also served in the House before becoming presidents.

But the legacy of notable members of the House extends beyond future presidents. Indeed, throughout my time thus far in Congress, I have had the great honor of serving with some of these truly great Americans. Sadly, we lost two of them in recent months — the renown American warrior Sam Johnson in May and the Civil Rights icon John Lewis in July. Before either one came to Congress, they were both famous patriots. And each left a mark on the House and the country they both served with such distinction.

Sam Johnson was a Texas tough Air Force fighter pilot who served in combat in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. A highly decorated two-time Silver Star recipient, Sam was a legend among Vietnam POWs for his courage, tenacity and defiance in the face of the enemy. He exhibited bravery and resilience each and every day in his almost seven years of captivity. Whether in uniform or in the halls of Congress, Sam always put the security and freedom of the American people above every other consideration. He served 29 years in the Air Force, nearly seven years in the Texas legislature and 27 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At Sam’s recommendation, I was appointed by former Speaker John Boehner to serve on the Smithsonian Board of Regents. As we served together on this special panel, we became fast friends. I remember once, when I told him that the uncle after whom I am named did the Bataan Death March and spent over three years in Japanese prison camps, he exclaimed, “Three years as a Japanese POW! Now that’s tough!” He said it as if his own ordeal was nothing in comparison. That was Sam – always humble and self-deprecating.

Just as Sam Johnson fought abroad to keep America safe and free, John Lewis fought at home to make it better, freer and more inclusive. He repeatedly risked life and limb during the Civil Rights movement to ensure that America fulfilled its promise of freedom, justice and equality before the law to all its citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. In his career as a Civil Rights leader, John Lewis was arrested for peaceful protests more than 40 times. He spoke with Martin Luther King at the famous March on Washington in 1963. John was badly beaten on numerous occasions, most famously at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. John was elected 17 times to Congress, where he was revered on both sides of the aisle as the “conscience of the House.”

John reached out and was kind to everyone. When I was first elected to Congress, I remember being consigned to 501 Cannon House Office Building. While I was just grateful to have an office and the great privilege of serving my constituents, the fifth floor of Cannon is widely considered the least desirable office space in the House. One day, much to my surprise, I was told John Lewis was in the front room and wished to speak with me. I immediately brought him into my office, told him it was an honor to have him there and asked what I could do for him. John said, “I always stop by this office to welcome the new representative at the beginning of each Congress because it was my first office, too.” Then he smiled and added, “And don’t worry, Congressman. You won’t be here long.” We both burst out laughing. That was John – always thoughtful, kind and funny.

While Sam and John served on the same committee, the House Committee on Ways and Means, and were universally liked and admired, they seldom agreed with one another on the issues. Sam was a staunch conservative Republican. John was a passionate liberal Democrat. Yet each man was renowned for his gentle nature, civil demeanor, collegial and courteous style and sheer human decency. And when either Sam or John rose on the floor to speak, the House listened with deep respect. Both had a moral authority and clarity that few members could match, and all members admired. Moreover, each loved the House — its traditions, its rough and tumble egalitarian style, its reputation as a crucible for debate and the free exchange of ideas and its role as the legislative engine for progress for the American Republic.

I deeply mourn the loss of my friends Sam and John. Each made America an even greater country. Each set standards we should all strive to emulate. Each revered the U.S. House of Representatives. And each will be missed by the Congress and the country that both served so well.