Commentary

Christensen: Charlie Rose looked to the future

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 15, 2012 

Charlie Rose, who died earlier this month, was the rarest of politicians – an original thinker.

Rose, a former 12-term Democratic congressman from Fayetteville, never needed a cue card, a speech writer, or an aide whispering in his ear.

Behind Rose’s “old buddy,” “old pal” back-slapping facade was a pinball machine mind – sort of a liberal Newt Gingrich.

Rose was the father of televised House sessions, a computer whiz as far back as the early 1980s, and the man who brought Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler and Carl Sagan to Capitol Hill to discuss what the future may bring. He was friends with the Dalai Lama and the head of the North Atlantic Assembly, an organization of legislators from NATO countries.

His role model was former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, another politician from the southeastern corner of the state who liked to push the envelope.

“Sanford was an innovator and just slightly ahead of his time,” Rose once told me. “I probably had in Sanford as good a role model for North Carolina as anybody could possible have.”

Politics in blood

Politics was also in Rose’s blood. His great-grandfather had been a speaker of the N.C. House. His grandfather had been a state senator, and his father was a state senator and mayor of Fayetteville.

As chairman of the House tobacco committee, Rose was cast in the role of protecting the increasingly unpopular tobacco price support program in Congress.

He became the ultimate deal-maker – helped by the fact that he was one of the first Southerners to back Tip O’Neill’s effort to become House speaker.

He would trade votes with California Rep. Leon Panetta for California wines and almonds, with Rep. Charles Rangel for transit subsidies and with Michigan-area congressmen for automobile company bailouts.

Such deal-making is often frowned on now. But at a time when Congress is deadlocked, it’s instructive to see how Rose and company made the system work.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms pretty much hated each other’s guts.

Rose became chairman of the powerful House Administration Committee from 1991-1994 where he was known as the Mayor of Capitol Hill, with power over everything from parking spaces to restaurants.

Fall from power

He hoped to become House Speaker, and began making his move when House Speaker Tom Foley was on his way out. But Gingrich lead a Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Rose challenged Dick Gephardt in 1995, losing the race for House minority leader by a 150-50 margin. As punishment he was stripped of his position on the renamed House Oversight Committee. The next year, he retired to become a lobbyist.

Rose had some Gingrich-type baggage. The Justice Department in 1989 filed a civil suit charging him with failing to report more than $138,000 in personal loans from his campaign on disclosure forms. Rose settled the suit in 1994 for $12,500.

He was married three times. But he never lost his sense of humor. Asked about a messy, public divorce in 1991, Rose replied: “As somebody once said, higher education is expensive and this has been a truly higher-educating process.”

For Rose, life was one long higher-educating process.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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