Announced his retirement from the...

REP. HAMILTON FISH JR.

March 21, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

REP. HAMILTON FISH JR. announced his retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives last week. The New York Times reported that his decision "raises the possibility that for the first time since 1843 a Hamilton Fish will not be representing the state in Congress."

Not exactly. The Fishes are one of the great American dynasties, but they have been in and out of Congress for the past 150 years.

The first Hamilton Fish was elected to the House from a New York district as a Whig in 1842. He was defeated after one term. After terms as lieutenant governor and governor, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1850 and retired after one term. He stayed in public life and was U.S. Grant's secretary of state.

His son, also named Hamilton Fish, was elected to the House in 1908, and, like his dad before him, was defeated after one term.

His son, known first as Hamilton Fish Jr., later as Sr., was elected to the House in 1920 and remained there till 1944. He was perhaps the best known member of the House in the late 1930s and early 1940s. That was thanks to his most famous constituent and worst enemy, one Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Fish represented the Hudson Valley district that included Roosevelt's ancestral Hyde Park estate. Despite or because of his combat heroism in World War I, Fish was a leader of the "anti-interventionists," as they called themselves, "isolationists" in their critics' lexicon.

FDR, other New Dealers and many journalists made Fish the personification of pro-Nazi Americans. In a campaign speech at Madison Square Garden in 1940, FDR lambasted the Republican Party for opposing him on preparedness. He named a few Republican leaders who had done that, then added three more in a phrase he called "a perfectly beautiful rhythm -- Congressmen Martin, Barton and Fish" (Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, Bruce Barton of New York).

FDR's ghosts originally wrote the line "Barton, Fish and Martin." They thought the sing-song version was better, and FDR agreed. So did the audience. When FDR repeated the phrase, as soon as he said "Martin" the crowd would join him and chant "Barton! And Fish!" Even radio comedians started using the phrase to deride the Republican Party. It always got a laugh.

Fish gave up isolationism after Pearl Harbor but internationalists Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, once and future Republican presidential nominees, opposed his renomination in 1942. Fish won, but lost his seat in 1944.

His son, the present representative, was elected in 1969 and has been a highly respected member of the moderate bloc of Republicans in the House. His eldest son ran unsuccessfully for Congress in a district adjoining his father's Hudson River base in 1988.

He is said to be considering running again this year in that or his father's district. You can probably guess his name: Hamilton Fish III.

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