Page 24


OBSERVATIONS Gonzalez Presiding San Antonio, Washington, D.C. HENRY B. GONZALEZ was born to be a committee chairman. He presides over the House Banking Committee with a special blend of courtesy and deference to the witnesses and to his colleagues and an aggressive, tough-minded insistence on the truth. Everybody knows he is honest, and now he is Mr. Chairman. This is an arrival to celebrate. His long career of public service has had its highs and lows, its triumphs and calamities. I sat at the press table of the Texas Senate all night one night in 1957 with only two other people in the chamber most of the time, the caretaker assigned to preside and Senator Henry B. Gonzalez, who paced the green carpet around his desk all night, filibustering Governor Price Daniel’s brace of unconstitutional bills to preserve school apartheid in Texas. I. shall always remember Henry’s eloquence and passion through that long night, his erudition, his outcries for the discriminatedagainst and the dispossessed, his good humor, and his loneliness. All the bills became laws, and, as Law Professor Charles Alan Wright predicted in brilliant articles published in the Observer, every one of the laws was struck down as unconstitutional. In Congress Gonzalez may have become too close to President Johnson for comfort. During ensuing periods Gonzalez has called out, in the wilderness, usually, for the impeachment of Presidents and public officials who should have been impeached. He was shunted aside from the chairmanship of the House investigation into the Kennedy assassination: if he had not been, the outcome would not have been the farce it was. He traded fisticuffs once or twice when a fellow Congressman or a passing rightwing nut reflected on his dignity or his patriotism. He is a well-read gentleman descended from educated Spanish aristocrats, but he is also a San Antonio Mexican American you better not insult. Gradually he moved up in seniority. As chairman of the banking subcommittee on housing, a position of potential power, he fought throughout the eighties to stop or at least to mitigate the Reagan Administration’s ruthless guttings of all federal housing programs. If you’re looking for the mark of the real idealist in Henry Gonzalez, there it was: during the Reagan years he even tried to pass laws to increase low-income housing. Often he repaired to the House microphone alone, except for whoever held the gavel for the nonce, to discuss his views. and concerns on what the House rules call “special orders,” that is, occasions during which members just speak their pieces. During some years it seemed perhaps that Gonzalez was the Member from Special Orders. Those few of us who page through the Congressional Record could follow there many of his very personal thoughts about the ebb and flow of history in our time and through his life. What was this, this, this lawmaker from San Antonio, doing taking his role and his duty so seriously? He learned through the years to face down the sniggerers, but as a prophet is without honor in his own country, Gonzalez was without honor in his hometown newspapers. Mostly, when they weren’t laughing they were blasting him. He was just too damn independent and too damn liberal for them. Yet they couldn’t beat him. Not Henry. He fought for the good causes all the time you name them, low-income housing, available health care, fair play for the races, honest politics, siding with the poor abroad instead of ganging up with the corporations against them and, this period in American history being what it has been, he lost much more often than he wbn. It was a highly honorable, but a long, slow career he had had, until the voters of Rhode Island decided last November that their Representative, Fernand St. Germain, was probably corrupt and threw him Out. That made Henry B. Gonzalez one of the eight or ten most powerful people in the United .States, the chairman of the House Banking Committee at the climax of the collapse of banks and savings and loan institutions. Now the 72year-old member from San Antonio sits at and indeed commands the center of the most important investigations into American banking since the Great Depression. His counterpart on the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan, took a lot of campaign dough from S&L PACs and intervened with regulators on behalf of S&Ls. Well, who among those birds in Congress hasn’t done a lot of things like that? That’s the point; Henry Gonzalez hasn’t, and now ordinary people who are watching him preside on C-Span realize: Hey, this is a champion of the little people. Where has he -been? The question is, where have we all been? How often is high-mindedness rewarded in this life? How often is conscientious service of ordinary people rewarded in the Congress? How often does our criminally debased political environment let a Con gressman who’s not on any kind of take rise and prevail? How often does a friend of the weak and the poor get real power? The arrival of Henry B. Gonzalez as the leader of the House Banking Committee is one of the best things I have ever seen happen in American politics. I N MARCH, I watched for two days as Gonzalez presided over two days of hearings on the S&L collapse. Returning to his hometown, he directed that the site for this event be not some auditorium over on the Anglo side of the downtown but the capacious Centro de Artes in the Mexican market, where the colored glass panels in the walls near the high ceilings let in particolored South Texas sunlight. Both days the hearings ran through the lunch hour without a break because this is the way Gonzalez conducts hearings. If people were hungry they just had to duck out and get a sandwich. Personally Gonzalez is famous for being late; under this gavel here everything ran on time, and each day’s long testimony and questioning ended when they were scheduled to end. Personally he loves to talk; but as the Chairman he patiently elicited information from the witnesses, fully attentive to their personal existence; he gave his fellow members on the committee all the time they needed; he never hurried anyone; and for his own part he , said little, but that saliently and succinctly. Here, emerging suddenly from a public servant who has a well-earned and lifelong reputation for unpredictable individualism, is a model chairman. Maybe the truest moment of those two days came when Gonzalez recognized for three-and-a-half to five minutes, just five minutes before the first day’s formal testimony was to begin, his former , colleague, Rep. Frank Karsten, who once represented the first district of Missouri in the U.S. House and now lives in the Hill Country. Karsten had several things to say, but all anyone will remember for very long is what he said about the moment that has now arrived in the savings and loan disaster: “Now is the time to raise the cow’s tail and look the situation squarely .in the face.” Members of Congress’ have a tradition when they open a hearing that each member of the committee \(or at least each senior his the first morning, Gonzalez said: “We must understand how this industry and its regulators slipped so far and so fast.” Alluding to the giveaways of the assets of bankrupt S&Ls which M. Danny Wall, the chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, arranged in 1988 fOr rich people and big corporations under the name, “the Southwest Plan,” the Chairman said: THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 :