Synar’s Spirit

Good morning, it’s Monday, May 15, 2017. Ten years ago today, in otherwise routine testimony before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand made a telling rhetorical gesture: He gave credit to a former member of Congress for taking the lead on his issue.

The lawmaker Wigand singled out was Mike Synar of Oklahoma, who died of cancer in 1996 at age 45. Eleven years ago, Sen. Dick Durbin also cited Synar, in a floor speech about Medicare’s drug benefit. As a May 15, 2006 deadline approached for seniors to sign up for the drug benefit, Durbin, who had served in the House with Synar, was urging senators across the aisle to cast an admittedly difficult vote.

“I remind them what my former colleague from Oklahoma, Mike Synar, used to say: ‘If you don’t want to fight fires, don’t be a firefighter,'” Durbin said. “If you don’t want to cast controversial votes, don’t run for the Senate.”

I knew Mike Synar, and admired him, for reasons I’ll explain.

Mike Synar was no longer in Congress when brain cancer cut short his life. His defeat in a Democratic Party primary two years before his death foreshadowed the huge Republican wave in the 1994 midterm elections. Mike lost to an underfunded amateur who had no chance in the fall against the Republican juggernaut.

“When he was defeated in 1994, there was probably no person in America more responsible for it than me,” President Clinton told mourners at St. John’s Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. Clinton was referring to Synar’s support for Clinton’s 1993 budget bill, which generated tremendous pressure in the congressman’s district because of its Oklahoma-hostile gasoline tax increase. Clinton’s budget passed by a single vote.

“If I hadn’t been elected president, he probably wouldn’t have had to worry about whether the Brady bill became law or not,” Clinton added in reference to a gun control measure that was another tough pill for red-state Democrats. “He wouldn’t have had to take that tough vote.”

But he did, because that was Mike Synar’s way. He not only voted for the 1993 budget bill and the Brady bill, but also the assault-weapons ban, probably the toughest vote of his time in his mostly rural northeast Oklahoma district. It was refreshing for the president to accept the burden of accountability for Synar’s loss, but in truth Mike Synar, just 28 when elected to the House, was casting unpopular votes before Bill Clinton came to Washington,

“He runs some breathtaking political risks,” Michael Barone wrote in the 1994 Almanac of American Politics. “Synar has a liberal voting record, by far the most liberal of any white member from the South, more liberal than most Democrats from the North.”

Nor was this self-proclaimed “Okie from Muskogee” a flag-waving hawk. He voted against a flag-burning constitutional amendment that was all the rage in the 1990s — and against the Persian Gulf War resolution.

It can be argued that Democrats (then and now) are too elitist for their constituents and that losing control of Congress reveals how out of touch they are with ordinary Americans. Fair enough. But winning elections, as Republicans are learning anew, brings obligations. One is to be responsive to the people, certainly. Another is to govern, which sometimes entails taking the heat for casting tough votes. Mike Synar did that, and did so with good humor.

The next time Paul Ryan is accused by liberals of wanting to starve the poor or push a Medicare-denied granny over the cliff in her wheelchair, he should recall Synar’s reaction when Mike flew home to his district one day to find a billboard proclaiming, “Stalin, Hitler, Castro, Synar,” placed there by a disgruntled constituent.

“At least he cared,” the lawmaker quipped.

Synar wore his maverick tag — and an ability to stir up passions — as an advertisement of his independence. Dick Durbin recalled at Synar’s memorial service how on a foreign trip, a local dignitary had induced a crowd of peasants to chant “Synar! Synar!” when he arose to speak. Synar turned to Durbin, flashed his famous Huck Finn grin and said facetiously, “Just like home.”

Synar had learned to laugh at himself, but he never learned to temper the fervor of his crusades. “Mike would never forgive me,” Durbin added in his eulogy, “if I didn’t use this opportunity to take one last swing at the tobacco companies.”

Synar spent most of the 1980s also battling mining interests, logging companies, and Western ranchers, whom he derided as “whiny, millionaire, welfare cowboys.” He didn’t always win, and he wasn’t always right. I covered a 1993 hearing on a mining law at which Synar and Sen. Pete Domenici hurled statistics and anecdotes at each other — hardly any of which were true. Synar got on the nerves of his Republican adversaries. But even when they thought he was full of bull, they didn’t question his motives.

At the memorial service, Sandra Zeune Harris, a longtime aide, told an amazing story about a contributor from back home asking Mike for a favor. After hearing the man out, Synar told him he didn’t agree, but even if he did, he couldn’t help him.

“Why not?” asked the surprised constituent.

“Because,” Synar replied, “you’ve given me too much money.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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