Jim Jenkins

Jenkins: Requiem for Howard Coble, a real congressman

AP

It was 1984. I was writing a column for the Greensboro News & Record and Howard Coble, a Republican state representative from that city, was running for Congress. Howard, who died this week at 84, was a character, light-hearted, funny, a story-teller, and though he was to remain a bachelor all his life, he dated often, sometimes telling me, “My mama still wants me to get married, you know.” When he was doing his duty in Raleigh, he liked to go to Two Guys on Hillsborough Street for pizza, and sometimes, in pursuit of a column, I’d come down and go with him.

In those days, Republicans were treated badly by the Democrats in power ... lousy offices, their bills ignored, sometimes dealing with Democrats who were just plain rude. Howard took it all in stride. Then he saw a chance for Congress.

And, on election night in ’84, he got himself a seat in Washington, which he was to hold for 30 years, at one point not even having Democratic opposition for re-election. But on that night, he came over to me and recited something out of a column I’d done on a visit with banjo wizard Earl Scruggs. He’s standing there repeating the last sentence, and I said, “Howard, c’mon! You’ve just been elected to the United States Congress!”

“Oh, I know,” he said, “but I love Earl. I wonder if he’ll send me a picture?”

That was Howard. In all those years in Washington, he never lost touch with the folks back home, but more importantly, he never lost touch with who he was. He was exactly what a congressman should be. He put the local people and their needs first; he had no use for pretension, no desire for great wealth (he refused $130,000 in an annual congressional pension) and while he was known to enjoy a good reception and some music, he could have cared less for fancy parties and the breathless praise of kiss-ups.

Of all the people I’ve known who spent their lives in public office, Howard is the one who changed the least. That may be the highest compliment a fellow can be paid. His replacement is a hard-right GOPer. We’ll see how it goes in an eclectic district that had grown fond of Howard Coble.

Howard had to weather political change, of course. When Newt Gingrich took charge of House Republicans, Coble was one who dared to stand up to the bombastic speaker privately. “I said to him,” Coble told me on a visit shortly after the Gingrich takeover, “I think we better be careful here. But he didn’t want to hear it. So I saluted.” But he still spoke his mind.

A new congressman got on a committee with Howard in the ’90s, and had an interest in copyright law, but some of the other members made fun of the guy (a show biz star) behind his back. “Now I told ’em, you fellas gotta give this guy a chance,” Howard said on that same visit. “He’s a smart guy and he knows what he’s talking about. I’d like to think they treated him a little better after that.”

As it happened, the fella, Rep. Sonny Bono, happened to come back while I was there. (Bono died in 1998.)

Howard was known for helping the new members along. He was known for a great sense of humor. He was known for loud sport coats (never was a slave to fashion), being close with a buck, a phenomenal staff serving constituents and for a disinterest in snobs and the “money crowd.”

Those of his colleagues who mistook his down-home ways for a lack of sophistication came to know better. Howard Coble for 30 years was exactly what his constituents wanted him to be and they respected him for it. A good many of them loved him. And he loved ’em back.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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