Gary Hymel, a newspaperman at heart, has a keen sense of the importance of using the right word instead of its second cousin.
Hymel attended Loyola University New Orleans in the early 1950s, and the Wolfpack’s fight song, played by the band at basketball games in the old Fieldhouse on Freret Street, began with the exhortation: “Fight, fight, fight, you men of the South!”
Anyone who knows Hymel, 84, and his wife Winky, who reared eight children in what recently has been characterized as “the swamp” of Washington, D.C., would find those words ironic. Hymel, after all, spent his professional life bringing people together, finding even the tiniest of footholds in the Capitol Hill quagmire.
Hymel was covering Jefferson Parish politics for the States-Item, New Orleans’ afternoon paper, when he got a call in 1965 from Congressman Hale Boggs, a growing power broker in the House of Representatives. As the Democratic Majority Whip, Boggs needed an administrative assistant to help him win hearts and, even more importantly, count votes.
A nice pay raise
Hymel’s decision to leave the States-Item was easy.
“We were living on $7,000 a year – I got $6,500 from the States-Item and a little as a correspondent for Time magazine and from the National Guard,” Hymel said, smiling. “Hale offered $21,000. In those days, Winky stayed home and raised the kids.”
The sausage-making of politics back then required 18-hour days. Hymel arrived in D.C., not exactly with the naiveté of Jimmy Stewart of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but at a time when history was pouring out like a fire hose: the Vietnam War; the public accommodations and voting rights laws in 1964 and 1965 that forever changed American society; the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968.
“I went up there just as LBJ got elected on his own, and the Great Society was taking off,” Hymel said. “It was like a whirlwind. I was working late every night and just trying to learn what was going on, and then I got shoved into this job where all the action was.”
In 1965, Harry Lee, the future Jefferson Parish sheriff, was president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, whose members flew to D.C. to ask Boggs if there was any wiggle room in the new public accommodations law that required African Americans to be served in any restaurant.
Boggs shot straight.
“The restaurants were trying to get around the ’64 bill,” Hymel said. “Hale told them, ‘Look, it’s the law of the land. The best thing you can do is get back down there and make it work and tell all the people what the law is. And, by the way, you ought to run a full-page ad in the newspaper saying that.’”
Hymel wrote the ad.
A tragic disappearance
Then, in October 1972, Hymel got the call that Boggs was missing in Alaska after taking off in a four-seat Cessna 310 during a campaign fund-raising appearance for Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich.
The next day, Hymel and Lee, who had gotten his political start in Jefferson Parish while serving as Boggs’ driver for six years, flew from D.C. to Alaska on a Learjet.
For the next several weeks, reconnaissance flights turned up nothing. The grief grew so intense that Boggs’ wife Lindy, grasping at straws, fielded calls from psychics directing where searchers might look.
“They called her and they would give us grid coordinates,” Hymel recalled. “I’d call the Air Force every night and give them the latest psychic readings, and they’d go out and look. Nothing. It was whacky.”
Hymel is convinced Boggs’ crash was purely pilot error.
“They got a report right before they took off that there was turbulence in the pass right outside the airport, and they went anyhow,” Hymel said. “There was an article by the pilot, on sale in the drug stores at the time, saying, ‘You don’t have to worry about icing on the wings if you’re willing to cheat the devil.’ He took a chance and lost.”
There was no transponder.
“He left it in his office in his desk drawer,” Hymel said.
Hymel was so respected on Capitol Hill that immediately after Boggs’ death, he joined the staff of House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, who would become House Speaker from 1977-87.
When Congressman Steve Scalise was gunned down last month in Alexandria, Virginia, while practicing for a charity baseball game, Hymel’s heart sank. If the politics of polarization and personal destruction played a part in the shooting – leading an unbalanced man to open fire on a Republican Congressman – Hymel knew it did not have to be that way.
“When I was up there, there wasn’t all this acrimony,” said Hymel, who retired in 2010 after more than 20 years as a lobbyist. “People got along. I really think that since Congressmen have two-year terms, everybody’s in the same boat, and when you’re facing that, you kind of coalesce. Because it’s every two years, you’re always running, and that develops some collegiality among the members.
“It’s not about attacking people, and the debate is not personal. The other thing is, you never challenged someone’s motives. That was verboten. They do that these days, but in my day, you never challenged a member’s motives.”
Play hard, play fair
Despite the social revolution of the 1960s, Hymel recalls there were immutable and unwritten rules of Washington politics: play hard, fight hard, but never get personal. And, have drinks and eat with each other at night.
One of the shining examples of bipartisan camaraderie took place every March or April during baseball spring training. Republican and Democrat Congressmen – and their families – would jump into their cars and “caravan” down to Florida for a week.
“It was a caravan like what they do on the Causeway when it’s foggy,” Hymel said, smiling.
Dan Rostenkowski was “a fierce liberal Democrat” from Chicago. He told Hymel that in his early days in Congress, he would make arrangements with two other Congressional representatives from the Chicago area, including Republican Harold Collier, to make the 700-mile drive back home on weekends.
“One of them had a station wagon, so they put a mattress in the back,” Hymel said. “One guy would drive, the other guy was the navigator and the other was sleeping in the back, and they would switch up. Would that happen today?”
O’Neill, who believed all politics was “local,” also had a way of keeping connections with fellow members from across the aisle by playing golf with them regularly. O’Neill loved golf so much that he once asked Hymel to plead with the chairman of the Appropriations Committee to postpone a hearing on a bill because he had a golf tournament to play in.
“Well, it is an ancient game,” said Texas Democrat George Mahon, who acquiesced.
O’Neill also used golf to reach out to Republican Congressman Robert Michel. “Bob and Tip would play together and sing together,” Hymel said. “They were just the best friends. There was never any acrimony between them.”
Lindy’s genteel style
Every May, Lindy and Hale Boggs would host a huge garden party at their home on Bradley Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland, and invite 1,500 people from across the political spectrum. Lindy was always the gracious host. It’s something Washington could use more of these days.
“I don’t think you have to dislike people in order to be strong,” Boggs once told a TV reporter.
As today’s political debate has become coarsened and even poisoned by vicious personal attacks and the convenient anonymity of social media, Hymel hopes the lessons of civility and respect for a person’s motivations are not lost forever.
“Tip’s idea of government was that, ‘I made it to the top of the ladder, and my obligation is to reach down and help the other guy out,’” Hymel said. “Government is all about helping. It does seem that right now, there is no way out. Tip used to say, ‘In politics, the pendulum swings,’ so I guess that’s what we have to hope for.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.