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Republican turned rebel: Amo Houghton's politics of joy

Jerry Zremski

WASHINGTON – Decades before Amo Houghton died, he witnessed the first death throes of the America he loved: the Norman Rockwell America of sturdy wood-framed houses and good jobs and good neighbors, of two political parties that put country before party.

From the corporate suites of Corning Glass to the halls of Congress and into his retirement, Amo fought to maintain that incomplete but beautiful vision of America. He didn't always succeed, but gosh, did he ever enjoy the fight. What's more, he made the fight enjoyable – a gut-busting riot, actually – for everyone involved.

Fifteen years after he left Congress, Amo died Wednesday at the age of 93. It would seem that those who knew him would mark his passing by simply reflecting on a life well led.

But it's not that simple. For those of us who knew him, his passing brought back memories of another time, one when corporate leaders were community leaders and Republicans like him worked with Democrats – and where some public figures, like Amo, led with an infectious joy.

I first heard of him in 1972, when his hometown and mine, 25 miles apart, found themselves submerged in the flood waters left behind by Hurricane Agnes. Corning Inc.'s CEO at the time, Amo took to the emergency airwaves to say that his family company would never leave the town that bears its name.

He kept that promise and more. Corning Inc. stayed, and the company thrived after some painful layoffs during the mid-1970s recession. Houghton reinvented his family company from a lightbulb and glass maker to a world leader in fiber optics. What's more, Corning Inc. helped rebuild downtown Corning into a perfectly preserved midcentury small town.

There, the richest man in town took his breakfast at Donna's, the local diner.

I met him when I came to Washington in 1989, three years after he was elected to represent the Southern Tier's sprawling congressional district. In one of our first meetings, the richest man in Congress greeted me with an ear-to-ear grin and a firm handshake, and at the end of the interview, left me with the kind of wit and wisdom I would hear from him again and again for decades.

"You know what politics is, don't you?" he asked. "It's theater for ugly people."

Then I heard the cackle, Amo's trademark, high-pitched laughter, for the first of what must be hundreds of times.

He spent his first years as a representative actually representing. He and his staff worked to win a new lease agreement between the City of Salamanca and the Seneca Nation of Indians, which owns the land where the city is built. And Amo pushed relentlessly for federal funding for a highway bypass that would carry I-86 traffic around his hometown.

But in 1994 the Republican Party won control of Congress – and Amo assumed the most unlikely role of his life, one he would play for the rest of his days.

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This Republican was now a rebel.

A moderate, Amo found himself out of place amid a new generation of Republicans who, in essence, wanted to burn down the House. Running against big government and gun control, these new Republicans modeled themselves after their leader, Newt Gingrich, who seemed to model himself after Rush Limbaugh and a host of other fire-breathing, right-wing radio hosts.

Amo didn't like what they were doing. When Republicans threatened to default on the public debt to force budget cuts, he called the idea "absolutely nuts." When they tried to cut the National Endowment for the Arts, he brought Ken Burns and Garth Brooks to Capitol Hill to fight back. And when Republicans fought to kill the Office of Technology Assessment – created to keep Congress ahead of the game on every issue touching on science and technology – he joined Democrats in trying to save it.

"This Congress should not go into the 21st century blindfolded to science," he said.

Amo lost that fight and many others, and quickly came to feel like a man from another time.

"You know, for the first time, I'm beginning to re-examine my roots here," he told me in 1995 as he lamented the approach of his party's younger generation.

"They turn people off with their attitude, their braggadocio," he said.

That being the case, Amo led a doomed effort to restore "civility" in the House chamber. And then, years after retiring from Congress, he roared back into public life in 2016 to lament the political rise of his temperamental opposite, Donald Trump.

"Enough already," he told me in July 2018. "Every voice, every pen, every opportunity to try to get this guy out of office is a good thing. I'm scared for the country."

Amo railed against Trump's efforts to discredit the media and the 3,200 false or misleading statements that he made in his first 18 months in office alone.

"The thing that bothers me so much is that words all of a sudden don't mean anything anymore," Amo said.

To understand why Trump appalled Amo, it's helpful to know where Amo came from. Yes, he came from money – but moreover, he came from the Greatest Generation. He served in the Marines at the end of World War II and rooted his politics in the war and its aftermath, a rare American era where Republicans and Democrats united to save freedom and rebuild Europe and win the Cold War.

He most admired the political leaders who made that happen. And so, at a time when other Republican lawmakers preached from the libertarian Ayn Rand's novels as if they were scripture, Amo raved about "No Ordinary Time," Doris Kearns Goodwin's treatise about the political partnership between Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, as well as David McCullough's "Truman."

Yes, FDR and Truman were Democrats, but to Amo, they were something more. They represented American leadership at its best.

But Amo wasn't self-righteous about his forlorn fight for bipartisan comity – which actually involved quite a bit of comedy.

Back in 1995, as a top Republican House member stood before a television camera to defend his party's budget cuts, Amo appeared behind the camera, stuck his thumbs in his ears and started wagging his fingers. The conservative congressman, Bill Archer of Texas, then dissolved into a fit of laughter while on camera.

Around the same time, Amo lamented to me about the House's long hours and the fast-food junk-food dinners they necessitated.

"I'm thinking with my gut," he said. "I'm doing that because it's becoming bigger every day."

You get the picture. A deeply devout Episcopalian who once considered becoming a missionary in Zimbabwe, Amo led life with an unabashed joy, as if every day – even a bad one – was a gift from God.

Characteristically, then, when he lost his fight to save the Office of Technology Assessment, he threw a party for its employees.

The band he played in for decades, the Swing Voters, performed. And before taking his place behind the drum kit, he said a few words that would resonate this week among everyone who knew and loved Amo Houghton and the vision of America that he represented.

"This is really sad," he said, "but we're going to stick together."

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