Fifty hears ago today, February 20, 1962, the world’s attention was on Cape Canaveral, Florida, a long way from Queens, New York. A lot more than the 937 miles on the map.
The next morning a three-line banner headline across the front page if the New York Times declared
GLENN ORBITS EARTH 3 TIMES SAFELY
PICKED UP IN CAPSULE BY DESTROYER
PRESIDENT WILL GREET HIM IN FLORIDA
Buried well below the fold was a much smaller headline that, unlike the banner, got little or no attention west of the Hudson River:
ROSENTHAL WINS QUEENS ELECTION
It was a story I never saw and if I had it wouldn’t have meant anything. But ultimately it was to become much more important in my life.
As a fellow Buckeye, Col. Glenn had been a hero since he set a cross-continental speed record in 1957. By the time he flew into space I was a student at Ohio State University and the only time I’d been to Queens was to fly in and out of LaGuardia on my only visit to New York City.
I got to know the astronaut in the 1980s when he was Senator Glenn and I was the legislative director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But before that I had the great opportunity to spend most of the 1970s as a legislative assistant to Congressman Benjamin S. Rosenthal. I had been a consumer reporter before arriving in Washington as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and Rosenthal was the leading consumer advocate on Capitol Hill.
He was always attuned to the needs of his city – I think he felt that famous New Yorker cover with his city at the center of the world was an accurate map – but in an unprecedented move for a New York congressman, he was one of the first to move his family to Washington so he could be a full-time lawmaker and not Tuesday-Thursday Club commuter.
There were times when he seemed out of synch with his constituents, but it was they who came around to his thinking on critical issues like the Vietnam War (he was one of the first leaders of the anti-war movement in Congress) and the Greek Junta (he led the opposition). He was also a prominent leader for congressional reform, consumer rights and oversight of the Internal Revenue Service.
He was the principal sponsor of legislation to create a Consumer Protection Agency; it passed both houses only to die in the face of a veto threat by President Gerald Ford. But it became the inspiration for and precursor of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was enacted as part of the Dodd-Frank law in 2010.
Ben was a prime mover to reform and democratize the Congressional committee system, ending the autocratic rule of entrenched antediluvian committee chairmen whose abuses of the seniority system gave it its reputation as the senility system.
It was for fighting so many causes that Ben’s wife, Lila, nicknamed him Crusader Rabbit.
He was a man of considerable intellect, a tenacious investigator and an insightful analyst who preferred being a legislator over being a politician. He did not enjoy campaigning, however, and was embarrassed to have to ask people for money for his races.
He was the leader of pro-Israel forces in the House and particularly on its Committee on Foreign Affairs, both in public and private. He led the fight to block arms to Israel’s enemies, to protect aid to Israel against administration cuts and to expand military and intelligence cooperation.
On one occasion, in a committee meeting, he had to be physically restrained from going after a colleague with a reputation as a Jew-baiter. He became good friends – and tennis partner -- with Yitzhak Rabin when the Israeli war hero was ambassador to the United States and later prime minister, and he may have been the only member of Congress who had bothered to get to know Menachem Begin when he was still in the opposition.
Tennis was important to Ben. He not only loved the game but said it taught him a lot about people, particularly his colleagues: who cheats, who can be trusted, who helps friends. That went from the court to the House floor, where he knew which colleagues’ advice to seek on legislation in their area of expertise, even if they were on opposing sides.
Ben was elected 50 years ago today in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Lester Holtzman, who had been appointed to the New York Supreme Court. He was reelected to 11 succeeding terms; he died just after taking the oath of office in 1983 at the age of 59.
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