Jewish World Review Jan 12,2005/ 2 Shevat, 5765
Steve and Cokie Roberts
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
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.
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
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.
Why not sign-up for JWR's daily update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on the Roberts' column by clicking here.
© 2004, NEA