He Didn't Change, the Voters Did

September 22, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--The political career of the late Clarence Long, who responded to his final quorum call on Sunday, underscored some durable old truths.

It demonstrated that in politics as in other pursuits, while work and persistence generally pay off, chance is important too. Mr. Long happened to be the right man at the right time in 1962, and the wrong man at the wrong time in 1984. His career-ending defeat was also a sharp reminder of the inexorable passage of time, which guarantees that no matter how fast your wits or quick your feet, if you stay around long enough you'll still end up as an anachronism.

In addition, in case there's anyone out there who naively believes that to become a winning politician you need a winning personality, the case of the irascible Mr. Long shows otherwise. He won 11 consecutive general elections for the House of Representatives, but despite the testimonials that poured forth upon his demise, he was never personally popular.

He satisfied the voters in his 5l district, irritated his colleagues, intimidated his staff. He was a respected man, in his day, and few would deny that he served his district and the nation well. But he was a loner with a surly streak, and he was not beloved.

He understood the anonymity that comes with departure from elective office, and before he experienced it he often referred to it with cold realism. But that didn't make dealing with it any easier for him, when at last the time came. He lived almost 10 years after his defeat by Helen Bentley in 1984, but one suspects he would have preferred to die in office.

A few politicians -- Jimmy Carter comes to mind -- seem to find life after leaving public service to be richly satisfying, filled with friends and memories and the ego-stimulation of being venerated for their knowledge and experience. Mr. Long was not one of those fortunate few. In retirement he seemed in some ways lost, evocative of H.L. Mencken's remark that ''nothing is so abject and pathetic as a politician who has lost his job, save only a retired stud horse.''

bTC That isn't to say that Clarence Long had no life outside of $H politics. His personal life was on the whole conventional, but it certainly wasn't sterile. He made investments, including a speculative real-estate purchase in Harford County which dragged him occasionally into local planning and zoning controversies. He had an academic career as a professor of economics. He married and had two children.

While he was in Congress, his son served in Vietnam -- not a common assignment for congressional offspring in those years, and a credit to both father and son. When Mr. Long changed from a supporter of the war to an opponent, his son's military experience was said to have been a factor in the decision. If so, it revealed another side of Clarence Long, for it was such a human and understandable reason for a change of heart.

Many people in and out of politics switched their views of Vietnam over the years, but Clarence Long's shift was especially noteworthy because of his lifelong consistency. On most matters, once he had made up his mind on something he didn't alter his opinion easily.

He came to office in 1962 as a liberal, politically independent of the Baltimore County Democratic machine that controlled most of his district. When he was defeated 22 years later he was still a liberal, still politically independent, but he seemed a stodgy old fellow. On most of the issues he was pretty much what he'd always been, but the voters in the district had changed, and were getting a little bored with him.

For years, he'd opposed the dumping of spoil dredged from the Baltimore harbor shipping channels on Baltimore County's Hart and Miller Islands. This a principled position, as well as the one his Baltimore County constituents had expected him to take. But Mrs. Bentley called him a job-wrecker, out to strangle the port of Baltimore, and that helped defeat him.

His Second Congressional District had been changed, too. Pikesville, with its active Jewish voters, had always been friendly to Mr. Long, who was a reliable supporter of Israel. But by the 1984 election Pikesville had been carved out of his district.

It was replaced by suburban parts of Harford County which he had represented years before but which in recent years had been getting ever more Republican.

In the end, what happened to Clarence Long is what happens to everyone who hangs around too long. The tide came in and swept him off the beach.

Because of his unwilling departure and joyless retirement, his career in retrospect seems more sad than triumphant. If he had stepped down voluntarily a little earlier, this might not be the case. Future Clarence Longs, hoping to protect themselves against this sort of humiliation, might consider a vote for term limits.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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