Jewish World Review Jan 12,2005/ 2 Shevat, 5765

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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The 'people's body' remains diverse | The 109th Congress convening this week is poorer for the absence of Bob Matsui. The Democratic Congressman from California who died unexpectedly on New Year's Day was honored by President Bush as " a good and decent man -- admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle." All true, and all reasons why he will be missed. But another reason is that Matsui was one of the few Asian-Americans in the House of Representatives -- which, to live up to its name, demands diversity.

Bob Matsui's role in both policy and politics made him a leader of his party, and his intelligence and good sense would have made him a leader in any enterprise. But it was his personal experience as a Japanese-American that marked the most memorable moment of his political career.

When he was an infant during World War II, Matsui's family was routed out of their home and hauled off to an internment camp. Nevertheless, the congressman was initially reluctant to support a bill apologizing for the internment and paying reparations to injured families because he was fearful that it might somehow backfire on Japanese-Americans. What changed his mind, he told colleagues in a dramatic speech on the House floor in 1988, were "the tears and painful remembrances of internees." The Japanese-American Redress Act passed, in large measure because of Bob Matsui and the other former internee serving in Congress at the time, Norman Mineta, who is now Secretary of Transportation. It's doubtful that others in Congress would have heard the remembrances or seen the tears that swayed Matsui, because it was too painful for most Japanese-Americans to tell their stories to anyone but fellow internees. That kind of access and awareness is why it's so important for the House of Representatives, designed as the "people's body" by America's founders, to reflect the nation. Unfortunately, what gets lost in all of the stories of the 109th Congress' political polarization has been the good news that it looks more like the country than ever before. Sure, there are still plenty of white male lawyers stumbling over each other in the corridors of the Capitol. But this year they're likely to encounter former welfare mothers, professional athletes, radio announcers and farmers as well. The numbers of women and minorities are higher than ever before -- even the Senate "club" now includes a black and two Hispanics -- and a few of those minority members hail from somewhat surprising places.

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For instance, it wasn't "blue" Michigan that sent an Arab-American and an Asian Indian to Congress -- it was "red" Louisiana. The suburbs of New Orleans, home turf of David Duke, elected health policy expert and Rhodes Scholar Bobby Jindal, while the heart of Cajun Country chose retired heart surgeon Charles Boustany.

We asked Dr. Boustany what his Lebanese grandfather, who immigrated to Lafayette, La., would think about his new job. "He's looking down smiling," the congressman surmised, "A true test for a family is whether they can participate in the life of the country, and here I am participating at the highest levels. It's part of the American dream." And Charles Boustany will discover that many other Arab-Americans trying to live the American dream will soon call on him; he won't just serve the Seventh District of Louisiana, but also a national constituency of people with life stories like his. That's what happens to all women and minorities in Congress, often to the surprise of the members themselves. New Congresswomen will discover that women will confide concerns to them that their male colleagues never hear. Take the example of women whose husbands opted for higher pension payouts in their lifetimes rather than providing survivors' benefits for their spouses. Widows suddenly left with no income told their tearful tales to women in Congress, who used the information to change the pension laws.

If people outside of Congress feel freer to approach the institution when they see someone recognizable, people on the inside who arrive with different life experiences open the eyes of their colleagues to unknown worlds. Shirley Chisholm, who also died this week, was the first person to bring the particular perspective of a black woman into congressional conversation.

Today the perspectives in Congress are many and varied, and it is a much richer place with members like Gwendolynne Moore of Milwaukee, a mother on welfare at age 19 who managed to make her way through college; and Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, the oldest of eight children of barely educated migrant workers, who earned a law degree and a Ph.D.; and Bobby Jindal and Charles Boustany. For all that, it's still a place where Bob Matsui will be missed.

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