The Civil War wouldn’t end for another year when Private William Henry Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry was buried, on May 13, 1864, not far from Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s home overlooking the Potomac River.
Some 400,000 people are interred in what’s now Arlington National Cemetery. I had no ties to Pvt. Christman or anyone else buried there. But that’s no longer the case.
On July 21, my old boss, former Congressman and Army Medical Corps veteran William Carney, was laid to rest there with full military honors. He died of cancer in May at his D.C. home at age 74.
I was his last press secretary, hired at age 29 for the first job requiring my wearing a tie. Hey, if western representatives, such as then-Congressman Dick Chaney could saunter up the Capitol steps in cowboy boots, why couldn’t I have ditched the tie? It’s not like I was hobnobbing with four-star generals or the Secretary of State.
But Bill Carney, who represented eastern Suffolk County from 1978-86, was definitely a suit-wearing guy. Armani? Yeah, no. But who could tell, since I often saw only the back of him as I dogged him to gain approval for press releases, weekly columns and newsletters.
He wore a suit, but Bill Carney was definitely not a “suit,” if you catch my drift.
The man I remember fondly was, according to his Washington Post obituary, “known for his quick sense of humor, his love of country and his ability to make friends with people from all walks of life.”
What else would you expect from a Brooklyn-born Mick?I can say that, being a Rockville Centre-born Mick.
(Ok, at this point some of you may be thinking, “Doesn’t this guy have anything other than Washington to write about?” Yeah, but it just worked out that way. So sue me, whydoncha? Or you could roll this newspaper up, with my mug showing, of course, and bash the nearest mosquito.)
The guy loved people. It’s that simple. From Ronald Reagan to Ronald McDonald. And people returned the favor, including, if not especially, those on the other side of the political aisle.
Case in point:Remember the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant battle? No, of course you wouldn’t. Only us geezers do. Anyway, the long-extinct Long Island Lighting Company spent about $6 billion to build a nuke plant along the Sound just west of the Riverhead Town line before it became obvious to all but the utility that should something go awry with the highly radioactive core, the uranium would convert to pandemonium.
By the way, Bill Carney was one of the select few Americans east of Pikes Peak – yeah, and doubtless to the west too – who supported the plant. That made my job, um, rather, shall we say, interesting.
Once a year or so, a largely Democratic contingent of Suffolk County Legislators came down to D.C. to “testify” before a House energy subcommittee on how Shoreham should be cut up and its various components rocketed into the sun. Well, that was the gist of it, anyway.
A Newsday reporter always made the trip and dutifully recounted the “we’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore” blather, like anybody on Capitol Hill gave a damn. Still, the legislators got some cheap ink, which included taking some pot shots at ‘ol Bill.
He knew the game, so it didn’t bother him a bit. Once, following their political theatrics, several of his harshest critics came back to our office and I heard one say, “Hey, Bill! You know all the good places! Let’s go to lunch!”
And they did. Not with then-Long Island Democratic Representatives Tom Downey or Bob Mrazek, but with Bill.
He could be a maddening, demanding and frustrating boss, but he always treated us well, was never haughty and never engaged in the lord & serfs BS other members infected with “Potomac Fever” fell in to.
In that same spirit of benevolence (a-hem), he was welcomed to participate in our post-5 p.m. “tapeball” games. What-ball? It’s simple; you wad up a piece of copy paper as round as possible, encase it in office tape and try to wing it past a batter wielding a mailing tube “bat” just outside the copier alcove.
Hitting a home run required belting a line drive the length of the office, past the appointment secretary’s corner workspace (and usually past the appointment secretary herself) and out the window onto South Capitol Street. If memory serves, that feat was accomplished just once, and not by the Boss.
I made sure of that. I called balls and strikes when he came to bat, his tie flung over his shoulder and out of the way. See, now if he didn’t wear one… Anyway, wouldn’t you know it? Every pitch was a strike.
“You won’t give me a break, will ya? he asked once.
“Nope,” said I, drunk with Potomac Power.
After striking out, he’d often retire to his office to freshen up for one of the receptions, fundraisers or other social events that keep the lights burning long after us serfs, uh, I mean staffers, descended into a Metro station and the ride home. Like any good Irish pol, he loved this stuff.
One weekend night, The Kellys of Fairfax County drove into the district for the sole purpose of visiting the Lincoln Memorial at night. It’s a “wow!” experience, even for the most hardened cynic, meself included.
The statue is awe-inspiring, but just outside the chamber the visitors generate a palpable sense of wonder and excitement. Well, I felt it, anyway. Off in the distance, past the reflecting pool, the Capitol’s iron dome is bathed in white light. To the right, high on a hill, a pinprick of flickering light marks the eternal flame at JFK’s Arlington grave. Hell, you can even see the Watergate Complex if you know where to look.
As I stood there, transfixed, taking the measure of the Capitol, I fell into conversation with an older gent who’d come all the way from Australia.
Yes, I said, it sure is a vista like no other. We chatted a bit then parted ways. Not long after, the fam and I headed back to the burbs.
After crossing the Potomac into Virginia it hit me. You idiot! Why didn’t you invite the guy to Capitol Hill? I’d gladly have given him the grand tour and, perhaps bring him into the inner office to chew the fat with a genuine congressman. Ties optional.
Dammit! The boss sure would have loved that.
Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.