Forty-one years ago, last month, as a 30-year-old state legislator, he won a special election in the northern Wisconsin congressional district that had never before in the 20th century sent a Democrat to Washington. One Wisconsin Republican strategist observed prophetically right after Dave Obey (OH-bee) was declared the upset winner, “He will be strong as horseradish.” So strong indeed that he has won 21 consecutive House elections.
But he has not been a habitual guest on cable’s political talk shows. And he was never a regular on the D.C. social circuit. You will not find him mentioned in the gossip columns. Instead, Dave Obey is that rare and valued elected official who says what he means and who means what he says — without trimming and without truckling.
This means that he and his public achievements are widely unknown to millions of working Americans whom his efforts have touched and whose burdens he has lightened and whose lives he has fought to make more fair. Of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Obey, it can accurately be said that he changed Washington more than Washington changed him.
Do you want to know how exceptional he has been? Then please name just one other American politician who has had the candor and the courage to give the same speech on the combustibly contentious Middle East to both the National Jewish Community Relations Council and to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League.
David Obey, then-chairman of the appropriations panel in charge of foreign aid, did just that. Daring to criticize to a Jewish audience the policy of the Likud government in Israel, Obey explained, “An honest public servant must tell people not what they want to hear, but the truth.”
After his surprise announcement that he would not seek another term in November, Obey spoke with me: “Public service was the only thing I ever wanted to do … You look around, and you see how society is wired. It’s wired to the advantage of the privileged. Public service is the only way to correct it. … For all my public life, I have stood up for the underdog. There are lots of lobbyists in this town who can stand up for the privileged folks … I’m proud I stood up for working-class people.”
To him, every federal budget is a statement of values, ultimately a moral document.
He is most proud of the fight he and fellow Democratic Reps. Henry Reuss of Wisconsin and Morris Udall of Arizona led, over the opposition of both parties’ leadership, against Ronald Reagan’s budgets, of the winning battle he and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., waged that led to “the biggest expansion of veterans’ benefits since the original GI bill” and to last year’s economic stimulus package “that everybody loves to hate” and which Obey helped write. He adds, “It’s the unpopular things you do that matter.”
At 71, he is still a Young Turk, energetic and impatient with delay or defeat. As Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., noted and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., agreed, “Dave Obey has lost nothing at all off his fastball.” Former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt says simply: “He knew who he was, what he believed and why he was in Congress. I hate to think of the Congress without Dave Obey.”
He has been the consummate legislator, intelligent, harder-working, and more determined and skillful than his colleagues.
But he has lived by the standard of a political hero, Hubert Humphrey, who believed “the moral test of government” is how it “treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”