Greetings from Florida! Tonight I’ll be celebrating the wedding of my cousin Kate and remembering Millicent Fenwick on what would have been her 102nd birthday.
Last year (pre-blog), I wrote Fenwick 101 in honor of Millicent Fenwick’s 101st birthday. So many folks were interested in reading this that it became the inspiration behind: http://www.sixdegreesofmillicent.com
By Amy Schapiro
Former Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-NJ), best remembered as the pipe-smoking grandmother in Congress and the model for Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury character Lacey Davenport would have been 101 years old today – February 25. She’s probably rolling in her grave as the government contemplates a shutdown over the budget. She would be the first to point out government responsibility (or lack thereof) and the fact that passage of a federal budget is nearly five months overdue. This coming from a woman who wanted to do three things before she died: donate a ring, see a friend, and make sure all her bills were paid and checks cleared, including her quarterly taxes, before she died.
Walter Cronkite dubbed her the “Conscience of Congress.” She was the voice of honesty, integrity, and ethics. Even going as far as writing checks to the U.S. Treasury to reimburse the government for congressional pay raises members received, thanks to a congressional vote, and for which she was opposed. Not only that, she returned more than $450,000 to the U.S. Treasury in unspent office expenses. She was, not surprisingly, opposed to PAC money and she practiced what she preached. She advocated for campaign finance reform and refused PAC money.
When asked why she was a Republican, Fenwick always attributed her party affiliation to, of all people, Hitler. “Hitler was elected (by over 80 percent of the vote, as I remember) in one of the most literate countries of the world, by a people preeminent in music, science and many other fields. And the government of that country proceeded to exercise the most cruel injustices against many of its people. It struck me as a hideous perversion of what government is meant to be, an institution designed to bring a just society.” And, it was social justice that was her driving force.
Where she used her voice most was as an advocate for human rights. As a freshman, Fenwick was responsible for legislation creating the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) which still exists today. The Commission monitors compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 which was a watershed agreement signed by 35 countries, including the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc countries, and NATO allies including the U.S. and Canada which changed the course of the Cold War.
President Ford always considered his signage of the Helsinki Final Act one of his major foreign accomplishments and one for which he was proud. “To my country these principles are not cliches or empty phrases…it is important you realize the deep devotion of the American people and their government to human rights and fundamental freedoms and thus to the pledges that the conference has made regarding the freer movement of people, ideas, and information. History will judge this conference not by the promises we make but by the promises we keep.”
And, President Carter carried the torch. In his inaugural address he said, “Because our moral sense dictates a clear cut preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights. We do not seek to intimidate, but it is clear that a world which others can dominate with impunity would be inhospitable to decent and a threat to the well-being of all people.” Because of Fenwick’s personal commitment to human rights she was able to establish a national commission to monitor human rights, and she did, receiving letters from individuals and watch groups around the world.
Watching the recent 60 Minutes interview of “The resilient Senator Scott Brown (R-MA)” it reminded me of a profile Morley Safer did thirty years earlier of Fenwick. “Fenwick is an elegant, literate dead-honest legislator whose somewhat patrician manner gets on some people’s nerves and amuses others. She has often defied the Republican Party line, championing consumer causes, women’s rights and civil rights long before they were fashionable.” She received low scores from groups like the American Conservative Union and perfect scores from Common Cause, and near perfect ratings from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Like Brown, Fenwick was a rising star in the Republican Party and widely popular in her state. Both had independent streaks and no qualms about reaching across the aisle. Despite being a Republican, Fenwick didn’t often vote along party lines. In fact, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), once said, “When I disagreed with [Fenwick] I felt unclean and immediately would go home and take a shower because on those very rare occasion when I voted the other way, I knew I was wrong because she always voted on principle.”
Brown and Fenwick also have something else in common, they capitalized on their handsome good looks. Brown was a centerfold for Cosmo and used his modeling money to pay for law school, Fenwick modeled for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue where she went on to become a copy editor and worked her way up as an associate editor, to support her two young children.
Unfortunately, Fenwick’s rising star faded after eight years in Congress. Due to the 1980 census and gerrymandering, Fenwick’s old district had been redrawn. Instead of running against another congressional incumbent she decided to run for a vacant Senate seat and lost to newcomer, Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), in 1982. Her loss was a shock, but it did not dampen her dedication to public service.
Not long after the defeat, President Ronald Reagan appointed Millicent Fenwick as the first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in Rome. It was the perfect ending to a 50-year career in public service that began with the local school board and ended in a country for which she felt at home and where her brother-in-law was an Italian Count. Fenwick’s fluency in Italian and French, and passion for the issues, served her well at the FAO.
In 1987 Fenwick returned home to Bernardsville, New Jersey. It is there that she was raised, and there that she died in her sleep in 1992, at the age of 82 years old, after the ring had been donated, her friend had visited, and her checks had cleared. A bronze statue at the local train station now commemorates this feisty, independent, conscience of Congress.