I miss having Bill Jenkins represent me in Washington. I was pleased to tell him so last week as the former congressman and I waited to give our regards to Dr. Paul Stanton on his retirement from East Tennessee State University.
Stanton is a class act. And so is the man I was chatting with in line that day. I was delighted to find myself behind Jenkins and his wife, Kathryn.
By the way, I miss Kathryn, too. From a reporter’s standpoint, she was a delight to deal with, which was not always the case with political spouses. I remember calling the Jenkins’ home early one Sunday to get the congressman’s reaction to a breaking story. Kathryn greeted my call with her usual grace and good cheer, and she insisted that I stay on the line while she fetched her husband who was outside doing some farm chores.
It’s hard to believe it has been five years since Jenkins retired from Congress. I always thought he was an affable and genuine man, traits that are lacking in some of today’s elected officials.
As a constituent, I was not always happy with the votes he cast in Washington. The Hawkins County Republican was a solid conservative, and made no apologizes for it. But he never treated constituents who didn’t share his ideology as if they had a serious character flaw. He was respectful and helpful to all those he represented (Republicans, Democrats and independents alike) in the 1st District.
In this regard, he was much like his predecessor, the late Jimmy Quillen. Jenkins had some very big shoes to fill when he took over from Quillen in 1997. Upper East Tennesseans had called Quillen their congressman for a record 34 years.
To most in the 1st District, Quillen was the federal government. Whenever they needed help with their veterans benefits, or Social Security payments, it was Quillen’s office they called.
Jenkins made sure he kept these constituent services intact when he took office. He was considered a low-key member of Congress. Some could have mistook Jenkins, a lawyer by profession, as a bit of a country bumpkin had they not seen his keen mind at work.
I once heard him recite Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” while doing a microphone check before a taping of public affairs TV show at ETSU. I doubt there are many members of Congress today who could do that from memory.
I’m fairly certain there are too few of them from either party who understand that you don’t need to spew partisan rhetoric every time you open your mouth in public.
There was a time when elected officials reserved the real flame-throwing political “stemwinders” (as Quillen used to call them) for the campaign stump or party gathering. Smart politicians in the old days didn’t get on their high partisan horses at civic club gatherings, chamber picnics or Veterans Day events because they knew there might be people present who vote for the other party.
They saved the strong stuff for the campaign trail. Not today. Every day is now election day for our digital politicians. I’m not sure Jenkins would enjoy being in Washington now. He certainly doesn’t miss it, which is another remarkable thing about Jenkins: He didn’t overstay his welcome. Too many politicians get Potomac Fever so bad that they have to be run out, voted out or carried out of Washington.
Not Bill. He told me last week he was enjoying his days traveling with Kathryn and spending time with his grandchildren. He’s also serving on a number education-related boards, including ETSU’s Foundation Board of Directors.
During our chat in line at the D.P. Culp Center on Monday, a number of people approached Jenkins to say they wished he was “still in Washington,” or to ask him what he thought of Congress these days. Jenkins is a pro, which means he is not going to make a flippant remark in public (particularly with a political columnist standing beside him).
The most controversial thing the retired congressman said that day might have been a remark he made to one man: “They need to stop spending so much of our money in Washington.”
It was an honest, thoughtful response that didn’t come by Jenkins consulting his party’s political talking point of the day, or texting his press secretary.
Maybe that’s why I miss Jenkins. He didn’t need a paid staff of Washington insiders to tell him what to do. He spoke plainly and honestly. And he didn’t need a partisan attack pamphlet disguised as a newsletter to communicate with his constituents.
Yes, I miss Bill Jenkins. I bet a lot of you do too.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.