What with all the seamy tales of scandal, truckling to the powerful and wasteful junketeering, there are reasons to scorn Congress. Mickey Leland wasn’t one of them. The 44-year-old Texas Democrat was a throwback to a more idealistic era of public service. When his small plane went down on a storm-swept mountain in western Ethiopia, it hardly seemed surprising that he was on his way to visit a refugee camp. Mickey Leland wasn’t a saint, just a leader at a time when leadership is in short supply.
It was a role he relished. Early on in his career, he caused a stir by venturing onto the floor of the Texas legislature sporting a huge Afro, a loud dashiki and a shoulder bag. Elected to Capitol Hill in 1978, he never let simmering antagonism between American blacks and Jews get in the way of his ardent support of Israel. Nor did he let the dictates of the State Department cool his personal friendship with Fidel Castro. Above all, he championed the cause of the homeless and impoverished in this country and railed against hunger around the globe. Born poor, he devoted special attention to the plight of refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. During many trips to Africa, he didn’t hesitate to do some of the sweaty work himself, loading 110-pound sacks of grain onto delivery planes. In Congress he helped drum up $800 million in relief funds in 1985, at the height of the African famine. “I am as much a citizen of this world as I am of my country,” he explained.
And yet Leland managed to be much more than a do-gooding Utopian. He had a tart sense of humor and he enjoyed the finer things of life: He once explained to a reporter that his jazzy, red, German-made car was “only a small Mercedes.” Tough and insistent, he was willing to grapple with the real world even while dreaming of one that might be. In the end, that dedication to achieving results cost him his life. Last week his wife, Alison, two months pregnant, and son Jarrett, 3, remained secluded in their Houston home. Says Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York, a close friend who was with the search party when the downed plane was located: “He leaves us a tremendous challenge to try to feed the hungry. Mickey believed people were dying of a disease for which everybody knew the cure.”