For once, a few tears fall amid dry Senate finance

October 03, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- It is not usual to see Sen. Don Riegle, Democrat of Michigan, cry in public.

It is especially not usual to see him do so during a meeting of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

The actions of the Senate sometimes move its members to despair, but rarely to tears.

But this was not a usual day. Even though the committee was meeting to hear the nominations of new members to the Federal Housing Finance Board (FHFB), somehow the people in the hearing room ended up thinking about things like life, death and renewal.

I was at the hearing only because Bruce Morrison, former Democratic congressman from Connecticut, has been nominated by President Clinton to chair the five-person board.

As Riegle noted in his opening remarks, "This year, [Morrison] played a key role in helping work out a cessation of political violence in Northern Ireland."

And while Morrison did not get nominated to the $123,100 per year job for that, it probably did not hurt that Morrison was national chairman of Irish-Americans for Clinton/ Gore in 1992.

There are 44 million Irish-Americans in this country and almost all of them vote when they reach 18, if not before.

Happily it turns out that Morrison also has an extensive knowledge of finance, having served on the House Banking and Urban Affairs Committee during his four terms.

I, however, remember him from college. It was the late '60s; I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, and Morrison was head of the Graduate Student Association.

It was a time of marches and rallies and calls for radical change, but Morrison's activism was different: He created a travel service that obtained tickets for students at rock-bottom prices; he won a battle to allow students to vote in city elections; and he built a consumer protection system to prevent students from being ripped off by local landlords.

And now he was in a somber, wood-paneled hearing room on Capitol Hill, his wife, Nancy, and their 2-year-old son, Drew, sitting behind him as he testified.

Morrison, 49, said he believed that the FHFB was a "key component of the affordable housing system of the United States." The FHFB, as it turns out, issues securities to banks and thrifts who use them in part to finance mortgages.

Morrison also said, "There are challenges ahead," which is the kind of thing you find yourself saying in Senate hearing rooms.

Also testifying was Timothy O'Neill, 40, nominated for a Republican slot on the board.

O'Neill used to work for Sen. John Heinz, Republican of Pennsylvania, who served on this very committee. Heinz died at age 52 in a terrible plane-helicopter crash in April 1991. Not only were Heinz and the crews of both aircraft killed, but the flaming wreckage fell on an elementary school, killing two children and severely burning another.

Behind O'Neill, sat his pregnant wife, Virginia, and their daughter, Porter, 5, and son, John, 3. Porter colored in a book with crayons, and John pressed Silly Putty against the back of his chair.

And it was impossible not to look out and see Morrison's family and O'Neill's family and not think of Heinz and his family and those children in that schoolyard.

And that is where Don Riegle broke down.

"Love and support and inspiration make all the difference in the world," Riegle said and then, speaking to O'Neill, added: "I was so proud yesterday to meet your father . . . "

And here Riegle's voice just shut down and tears welled up in his eyes and he could not speak. His face grew red and his throat worked up and down, but no words came.

After a long moment, Riegle finally said: "I'm sorry. This doesn't happen often. But it's so hard for me. I lost my own father not long ago. And at moments like these I can appreciate the fact that you can be in a room together and share this moment."

Then he shook his head a little and smiled and said, "OK, let's get down to the hard stuff."

And then he asked Morrison and O'Neill a few questions about high finance.

The committee is expected to approve both appointments next week and the Senate is expected to confirm them.

Nobody is expected to get teary-eyed.

But it's nice that it happened just this once.

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