Flag-waving Bartlett wins hearts of the west

Mirror image: Despite gaffes, GOP ultra-conservative enchants Sixth, with scant achievement in Congress.

An Editorial

September 24, 2000

THE CONGRESSMAN thought it would be easy to find a community willing to honor a soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Naming a post office for the veteran seemed a suitable tribute.

But Roscoe G. Bartlett found surprising opposition at not one, not two but in three Howard County communities before trying an end-run at Savage: Without local consultation, he got the House of Representatives to rededicate the town post office.

When surprised residents objected to Mr. Bartlett's action, the four-term congressman curtly challenged their patriotism.

That recent episode well reflects the missteps that have marked the 74-year-old's tenure as Sixth District representative. And it illustrates his unrelenting effort to play the patriot, the voice for military veterans.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial in the Sept. 25 Sun should not have said that former Rep. Beverly Byron endorsed Roscoe G. Bartlett in the 1992 general election. The Sun regrets the error.

Above all, run it up the flag pole and quote the Constitution, a copy of which is always in his pocket.

These are the political pillars of the former physiology professor, space scientist, inventor, farmer and homebuilder from Frederick who's had little difficulty keeping his seat in rock-solid conservative Republican Western Maryland since first winning through an extraordinary turn of events in 1992.

He's by far the most conservative member of Congress from Maryland, and proud of it. He voted more often against President Clinton's programs in 1999 than anyone else on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Bartlett eagerly embraced the radical Contract With America manifesto of resurgent Republicans in 1994 and never renounced one element. He was the only Maryland congressman to vote for all four articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton.

That right-wing record gets a strong reception in his six-county district. Mr. Bartlett seems to accurately reflect the sentiments of his constituency, without even trying. "I'm one of the luckiest people down here. I essentially never have to vote to violate my conscience," he tells the faithful.

Despite repeated predictions that the district's makeup is becoming more moderate, the Bartlett message and its effectiveness remain unchanged.

He doesn't spend much on campaigns. And he doesn't raise a lot of PAC money. But his opponents typically don't raise much money to challenge him, either.

Mr. Bartlett made two unsuccessful runs for Congress in 1980 and 1982. In 1992, he narrowly won a three-way primary by 646 votes, and got lucky: Seven-term conservative Democratic Rep. Beverly Byron lost her primary in a shocker to moderate state Del. Tom Hattery. She then endorsed Mr. Bartlett, who went on to become the oldest freshman in the 103rd Congress.

Unyielding in his belief in less government and smaller budgets, he has gotten highest ratings from taxpayer-rights groups, the Right to Life PAC, the Chamber of Commerce and Liberty Lobby.

Not surprisingly, he's at the bottom of rankings by the League of Conservation Voters, ACLU and Americans for Democratic Action.

He's resolutely opposed to abortion and gun control, in all manner. He doubts the value of the United Nations. He's skeptical of U.S. involvement abroad, including foreign aid.

A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he points to the great tolls of tobacco and alcohol, but philosophically can't support a government ban.

Though he never served in the armed forces -- he got a divinity school deferment during World War II -- Mr. Bartlett vocally supports military and veterans benefits.

In fact, his most prominent achievement in eight years has been banning sexually explicit magazines from military stores. He's also fought for separate basic training of male and female recruits, for keeping women from submarine duty and for same-gender missile silo assignments.

But he's not a total military hawk. He's among the congressmen appealing to the Supreme Court the president's authority to conduct what he considers a war in former Yugoslavia.

Clearly, veterans are an overarching concern. Asked why he voted against funds for a bridge to connect interstate highways in Frederick County, Mr. Bartlett replied, "There's no way I'm going to build that bridge with money (taken) from veterans' health care."

After an initial burst of ideological idealism, which saw him reject as unnecessary federal aid for his own district to dig out of a fierce winter blizzard, Mr. Bartlett has since found an accommodation with such philosophical conflicts.

"In every appropriations bill I could find 100 things to vote against it for, and 100 that would make me vote for it," he says.

An early supporter of term limits, Mr. Bartlett now disclaims any pledge to limit his own tenure. "I'm young enough to be Strom Thurmond's son," he tells anyone who asks if he's thinking of stepping down.

He's become a believer in emergency farm aid, even as he opposes government handouts. He voted against NAFTA, even though he supports free trade in principle. Lately, he's become an opponent of the death penalty, after years of supporting it.

And despite his lectures on ideological consistency, Mr. Bartlett has experienced a few conflicts himself.

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