Daniel L. Feldman

In General on May 6, 2011 at 11:42 am

Lowenstein had a new assignment for me back in New York. He had been elected to Congress in 1968, defeating Republican-Conservative Mason Hampton Jr. in a Long Island district that had a three-to-two Republican enrollment advantage. For the 1970 election, though, the Republican party leadership managed to get the State Legislature to redraw the congressional district lines to make the existing Republican enrollment advantage far greater, now something like two-to-one, and Republican State Senator Norman Lent narrowly stopped Lowenstein from being reelected. Lowenstein still won 46 percent of the vote.

As far as I know, no other former member of Congress ever maintained a functioning “ex-congressional” office. My job for the rest of the summer was to take over for Harriet Eisman, who was going on vacation from her “regular” job as manager of that office. The office supported the whirlwind of Lowenstein’s activities from the anti-war movement to his continuing obsession with uncovering the facts of the RFK assassination to his continued determination to end apartheid in South Africa, out of which he had clandestinely brought some of the first evidence of the brutality of the apartheid regime in 1959, barely escaping arrest by the South African police.  However, I found it almost impossible to find anything in that office, and difficult enough even to move about, because Al never wanted to throw anything out. Before Harriet left for vacation, she assented to my plan to ignore Al’s directive. I hired a truck and loaded it up with all the junk that had cluttered up the place. Some days after Al got over his annoyance, he thanked me.

My responsibilities also included driving Al to his many speaking engagements and meetings. This also meant supplying him with cash, because he never had any on him, and occasionally supplying him with my sport jacket, because we were about the same size and his was often missing, or horribly crumpled. Since we always faced a challenge in getting to so many events in a finite amount of time, if I hesitated for a split second after a red light changed he would helpfully announce “Green!” as a signal for me to proceed immediately.

Sometimes I went with him to his house in Long Beach. He would customarily call his wonderful wife, Jennie Lyman Lowenstein, to let her know that he would be bringing a dozen people for dinner in two hours. Frequently these included strangers he had met some hours previous.

If he took all of us for granted, if he exploited our devotion, if he could be inconsiderate, none of this reduced my admiration and affection. As much as anyone I have ever met, this man devoted his life to the pursuit of justice, and served that pursuit with incredible energy, brilliance and eloquence.

Everyone has an “Al” story. One of the more colorful ones I remember came from a North Carolina state legislator, who had been a classmate of Al’s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Al went to college. At some fundraiser for Al, the State Senator spoke about how he first met Al, when the two of them tried out for the wrestling team. The coach paired up freshman for matches pretty casually, and the someday-to-become State Senator paired up with Al. “Ah got paired up with this skinny Yankee, and all ma’ friends stood aroun’ yellin, ‘Git ‘em, Jeb, git ‘em, Jeb!’ But then Al got me in his famous scissors holt, an’ the lass’ thing I remember was ma’ friends yellin’ ‘git ‘em, Jeb,’ before Ah paaaaassed out!”

Al never stopped trying to get back into Congress. In 1972, as I’ll mention again in a later posting, Al ran against John Rooney in a Brooklyn district, and in 1978 he tried to win the Manhattan East Side seat that Ed Koch vacated when he became mayor. Meanwhile, he served as a special ambassador to the United Nations for political affairs, and continued his usual routine of fifty other projects at the same time.

After his assassination in 1980, Edward Kennedy spoke at the memorial service. He noted Al’s obsession with returning to Congress, and mentioned a telephone call with Al a few months earlier. He conveyed to Al the compliments from a California Member of Congress, who admired the work Al was doing. Al apologetically indicated that he was not familiar with that particular Member of Congress. Kennedy replied, “He’s a Member of Congress, Al, but he knows who YOU are.”

Whatever he may have thought, Al did not need to be a Member of Congress. He remains the chief political hero of my lifetime.

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