Peter Rodino: My Job Is 'awesome'

Congressman Peter W. Rodino steps out of the car on Newark’s Seventh Avenue on a dazzling spring Saturday afternoon and stands, small, neat and cautious. He is 64 years old and his carefully brushed hair is the color of tarnished silver, but he still has the look of the careful kid who once lived in a row house down the block. He is back this Saturday campaigning; the June primary is only weeks away, and though he has only token opposition, he never takes anything for granted.

There are still Italians on Seventh Avenue and one of them, an old lady in a long, black coat, waves and shouts, “Hey congressman, I see you all the time on TV. When you going to get rid of the umbriago?” She is a mean old lady, and she is referring to Richard Nixon. Umbriago is the word for a drunk.

Rodino has heard similar questions all day long. He tells the old lady what he’s told everybody else: “We have an awesome job to do…We must consider all the evidence carefully…We can’t be unfair, and we can’t even seem to be unfair.” His voice is as boyish as his smile, a light, earnest tenor with a Jersey twang. The old lady pumps his hand, beaming, but she hasn’t been listening. “Put him out tomorrow,” she shouts encouragingly. “No, that’s too long. Put him out today.”

Peter Rodino smiles cautiously and says nothing. He doesn’t want to argue, but he wishes the old lady wouldn’t talk like that. He wants her and Richard Nixon and all the other people in Newark and in Washington and everywhere else to know that Peter W. Rodino, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the man in charge of impeachment, is not a partisan but a patriot doing an awesome job.

He is a lot of other things too. He is the typical congressman—an obedient fellow who doesn’t make a move without checking with the House leadership.

He is both Italian and American, like Shakey’s pizza—a little bland for sophisticated tastes but with a lot of appeal to the hard-hat, beer-drinking, church-going silent majority. He is, as far as is known, an honest politician, a real distinction in Newark, N.J.

He is cautious, possibly the most cautious Washington power broker since President James Buchanan.

He is a worrier. When the courts ordered the congressional redistricting of New Jersey, he spent most of his time lobbying the state legislators in the hope that they’d give him a nice safe new district. (They didn’t.)

In his own fashion, he has been nonpartisan most of his life. He is a Democrat, but he quietly supported an old Republican congressional buddy, William Cahill, for governor of New Jersey. The most prominent picture in his Washington office shows him shaking hands with Richard M. Nixon.

Congressman Rodino is not a brilliant political leader. Even his best friends consider his 26-year record in Congress undistinguished. But he has lots of friends. “He has no real enemies in Congress,” one congressional aide says. “Even the astute guys, the ones who might look down their noses at Pete, have a kind of respect for him.”

Peter W. Rodino is very much the product of a time and place—1946, Essex County, N.J.—when Dennis Carey, the Democratic boss, started looking for “a couple of guineas with good Italian names.” Newark was Italian and Republican and its congressmen were Republican WASPs. Carey figured the citizens would vote for Italians if he gave them a chance, so he gave them Hugh J. Addonizio and Peter Wallace Rodino (the Wallace was added before the first campaign). They were the first Italian-American congressmen from Newark; they shared a Washington apartment at the Woodner Hotel, and the old folks back home called them “the heavenly twins.” Addonizio would become a minor embarrassment to Pete; he would leave Congress to become mayor and, in God’s good time, he would be caught stealing and sent to the penitentiary. It is a fate which has overtaken many Newark politicians, but no one thinks it will ever overtake Rodino. The general theory is that he is a cautious man who goes to Mass every Sunday and who shuns temptation. “He’s either pure or he’s awfully smart,” one member of the New Jersey delegation said, “and I don’t think he’s that smart.”

Rodino sometimes calls oblique attention to his own honesty. While touring Seventh Avenue this sunny Saturday, he stops in front of a small bank. “I grew up with a fellow who built that bank,” he says. “He made a lot of money, and he was much admired, but then they caught him embezzling, and he’s been kind of anonymous ever since.” He pauses and smiles. “His father took kickbacks, and some of the old folks used to say that he was punished for the sins of his father.”

The question of Rodino’s ability is as fascinating as the fact of his honesty. He is certainly no fool, but his most conspicuous contribution to the laws of the land has been a bill making Columbus Day a national holiday—not a particularly remarkable achievement for a man who has been elected to Congress 13 times. But getting elected 13 times is a remarkable achievement itself, particularly after congressional redistricting took away his safe Italian ethnic blue-collar district and gave him all of Newark, including its black and Puerto Rican wards. In 1972 Rodino beat three black opponents in the Democratic primary—but only after a judge ruled that the white Republicans from the suburbs could vote in the party election. Since then he has cultivated black congressional leaders like Rep. John Conyers from Detroit and voted strictly according to his constituents’ wishes. That and his sudden national prominence have made him a cinch to be reelected this fall for his 14th term.

On Capitol Hill the feeling is that Rodino is as smart as he needs to be, and the best opportunity for him to prove it came last fall when the impeachment question fell into the lap of his Judiciary Committee. There was a certain irony in the timing. Rodino had been saying publicly that he hoped both President Nixon and the country would survive Watergate with as little damage as possible, and Nixon’s photograph was hanging there in his office for all to see. On Oct. 17 Nixon wrote him a “Dear Pete” letter congratulating him on being chosen Man of the Year by the Justinian Society, an organization of Italian-American lawyers. Three days later Nixon fired Archibald Cox and made impeachment proceedings inevitable and, more or less inevitably, Rodino and the Judiciary Committee got the job.

The “Dear Pete” note, the photograph and Rodino’s whole attitude would seem to make it difficult for the President to argue then or later that the committee was a partisan mob out to get him. Rodino made it clear right away that he considered the task an “awesome” but necessary one.

In February Rodino made a speech in the House, asking the members to rally round. “It has been said that our country, troubled by too many crises in recent years, is too tired to consider this one, but as Thomas Paine wrote, ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’ ” A few days later the congressman was in Bethesda Naval Hospital, proving Tom Paine a good diagnostician—he was suffering from chronic fatigue.

All along, Rodino made some shrewd moves. “Pete has his limitations,” one congressional staffer says, “but he knows them and he’s willing to take advice.” The advice the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee took was not to try running the impeachment proceeding himself, but to assemble a fine staff and a great lawyer to head it. He got John Doar, who is a first-rate lawyer, and he gave him all the responsibility for preparing the evidence. He sees his own job as keeping the committee members, Democrats and Republicans, working together, and he’s done that. The members trust him. For a man who is regarded by most observers as a limited politician, he has handled himself very well.

As the crisis of impeachment approaches, Rodino is impressively cool. On Sundays he is home in Newark, presiding over the weekly family dinner, with wife, mother-in-law, brother, sister, children and in-laws gathered around, eating veal and pasta, drinking good red wine and making small jokes about everything but impeachment.

On Monday the congressman flies back to Washington early. Aide Jeffrey Kaydon meets him at National Airport and drives him to the office where he has breakfast—a fried egg on a hard roll—and reads the Washington papers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He then goes over to the committee staff’s quarters across the street in the old Congressional Hotel, attending to whatever business is at hand which, on occasion, has included listening to White House tapes. He lunches lightly at the House dining room, sometimes just a cup of coffee, and spends the afternoon answering quorum calls on the House floor and conferring with the leadership.

Chairman Rodino gets back to what the staff calls the “inquiry” about 5, sitting down with John Doar, plotting the course of the investigation, often until midnight. His dinner schedule is vague. Recently his personal assistant Ronna Friedberg and her husband brought him a couple of plates of Italian food they’d picked up at a party. He was enormously pleased, ate it all and returned the dishes, washed, the next morning. The “inquiry” has not affected Rodino socially—he lives alone in a high-rise apartment in the renewed southwest area—and his Washington social life has been close to nil for 26 years. “The only invitation he accepts is any invitation to the Italian Embassy,” an aide says. His new responsibilities have affected his exercise routine—he used to play paddle ball with Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton and Senator Lowell Weicker at the House gym—but he doesn’t any more.

The “inquiry” dominates Chairman Rodino’s every waking moment, and it will continue to do so at least until fall. Frank O’Brien, his top aide, says the staff plans to start presenting evidence to the committee members by mid-May. They hope for a committee vote by late June, and it will take at least two weeks to write a report. Impeachment will then move to the House floor for a “designated” two weeks of debate. The big vote in the House—for or against impeachment—should come in August.

Rodino remains unperturbed by White House maneuverings which have slowed the timetable. The acquittal of John Mitchell and Maurice Stans left the chairman and the committee neither elated nor depressed—they feel their task remains unchanged. This is a historical process, and Rodino is determined to see it through.

“I know I keep using the word awesome all the time,” says Rodino, “but that’s what it is—an awesome responsibility. I’ll have to keep on using it until everybody in the country hears it and understands.”

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