Congressman David Obey: A Unique Leader and Inspiration for Next Generation

May 07, 2010

By Victor C Johnson

I don't remember when I first met Dave Obey. Probably 1973, when he was a junior Member of Congress, and I came to Washington from the University of Wisconsin to do research for my Ph.D. dissertation on Congress and foreign policy. Dave had recently completed a degree from the same political science department. In my ensuing 17-year career with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I got to know Dave a little bit—although as is usually the case, our relationship was mostly through staff. In fact, I was as likely to run into him personally at the Birchmere, a local bluegrass venue, as I was on the Hill. (Dave formed, and plays a mean harmonica for, The Capitol Offenses, a bluegrass group comprised of some of his musician friends, colleagues, and staff. The very name of the group perfectly captures the personality for which he will be remembered.)

Dave announced his retirement Wednesday, with a statement that reflects the quintessential Dave Obey. Reading through it, I was reminded of the work that his staff and I did together in the 1980s to try to forge a more constructive U.S. relationship with Central America and to end the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and also to redirect U.S. foreign assistance away from support for right-wing regimes and toward economic development. He was such a stalwart. Whatever success we achieved would not have happened without him.

With respect to my current work with NAFSA, Dave has been essential to expanding access to higher education, and we have always been able to count on his support for international education.

As Dave said in his statement, he came to Congress to do big things, and that's what has always engaged him. Not many can say that anymore. He said, "the job of a good politician was to be used up fighting on behalf of the causes you believed in, and when you are used up, to step aside and let someone else carry on the battle." He can say he is leaving on precisely those terms. Not many can.

Dave is unique—the antithesis of the cookie-cutter politician. There will never be another Dave Obey. But there can be successors who will live by his values—if they step up, get elected, and serve by his example. It sometimes seems a vain hope in today's climate. But the American political system has a remarkable capacity for self-renewal. Congress was once a place where one could be proud to serve. It can be again. All it takes is good people. Let us hope that the next generation rises to the occasion and reclaims the greatness of this institution.


Victor C. Johnson is the Senior Adviser for Public Policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. A frequently consulted expert on policy issues related to international education, Johnson served for more than 20 years in senior foreign affairs positions in Washington, DC. From 1981 to 1993, he was staff director of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, where he was responsible for all significant issues of Inter-American relations. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, West Africa, and has lived and worked in South America. Johnson is chairman of the board of directors of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).


SHARE THIS POST