Congress

Old-school lawmaker departs: Goodbye, madras jacket, courtly ways

Rep. Howard Coble sits amid items being packed in his congressional office in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2014. He is retiring after serving as a Republican congressman from North Carolina for 30 years. A painting of a Coast Guard icebreaker he served on as a young man leans against the wall beside him.
Rep. Howard Coble sits amid items being packed in his congressional office in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2014. He is retiring after serving as a Republican congressman from North Carolina for 30 years. A painting of a Coast Guard icebreaker he served on as a young man leans against the wall beside him. McClatchy

As his staff packed everything around him – the autographed photo of Chet Atkins, the floor lamp in the shape of his trademark pencil, the many boxes of newspaper clips and letters – U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., was letting it all go without an outward sign of regret.

If he needs to see any of it again, it will all be at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he says. He’s donating almost everything in his office to the university in the city where he was born and where he will move into a retirement home.

At 83, Coble is leaving Capitol Hill after 30 years, and even though he will remain a member of Congress until the new one takes over in early January, he’s swept up in the big reshuffle as offices must be vacated early to prepare for new arrivals.

So, this week, it all went in trucks to Greensboro, a trove of historical records that includes clips from every newspaper story that ever mentioned “Howard Coble” and all his campaign finance records and correspondence.

The university probably will also get the floor lamp with a post made to look like a giant yellow pencil with Coble’s name, a reference to his old campaign slogan about taking a sharp pencil to the budget to slash spending. There also are many photos, including some from his days as a regular tennis player.

A few things will probably stay with him, including a painting of the Coast Guard icebreaker North Wind, the vessel he was on while in the service, and the Chet Atkins photo. Coble is a great fan of bluegrass and old time country.

He often complained of government waste in his career – and he took it to lengths like no one else.

Coble is one of the few members of Congress – maybe the only one – who has ever rejected the generous congressional pension. He fought it as a waste of taxpayer money.

“That was not the most brilliant financial decision, I assure you,” he said with a smile.

But it’s not one that can be reversed now.

Coble said he’s sorry he did it because it didn’t accomplish anything. He tried over the years, unsuccessfully, to reduce the pension program by increasing the time a person must serve to qualify. He proposed a bill last year that would have changed the period from five years to 12 for future lawmakers. No one signed on to support it.

All that talk about cutting spending?

“Fell upon deaf ears, apparently,” he said.

In an interview in his office, among the pictures propped up on couches and against walls, and boxes piled up on handcarts, Coble said he’d miss the people most.

Washington is close enough to North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District that constituents would drive up and drop in. He’s also fond of his staff and many of the other workers he saw every day. A waiter in a cafeteria in his office building just that day had given him a hug and said he’d miss him.

“That’s got to make you feel good,” Coble said.

Earlier in the week, before Coble returned from a break in Greensboro, his chief of staff, Ed McDonald, packed and chatted with staffers from other congressional offices who stopped in to measure the drapes, in case their boss got a chance to be the office’s next occupant.

On Wednesday evening, members of the House of Representatives honored Coble with speeches. Several, including Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., wore colorful jackets in a nod to Coble’s look in recent years, after he found a green madras jacket on sale at Belk.

In his early days in Washington, the former state lawmaker and federal prosecutor was known for colorful suspenders.

“He’s never been a man on the cover of GQ,” McDonald said.

Or one to take himself too seriously.

Congress has grown more partisan during Coble’s time in office.

“Many folks complain we’re going after each other’s throats,” he said of the partisan acrimony. “This partisan issue really doesn’t bother me that much because . . . there are only two major parties. And I think those parties are better served if they’re competing with one another.”

Not only is there a healthy exchange of ideas, Coble said, but also “it keeps the other side honest.”

Still, “we need to ease up on the fierce partisanship,” he said. “I describe myself as a partisan, but not fiercely.”

  Comments