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Not Loudest, but the Smartest

January 04, 2005

The contrast between Rep. Robert T. Matsui and the numerous lawmakers who have turned themselves into the playthings of Washington's K Street lobbyists could hardly be starker. Matsui, who served the Sacramento area in the House of Representatives for 26 years until his death Saturday, didn't just represent his constituents; he epitomized an ideal of public service that has largely vanished in a partisan Congress.

During World War II, Matsui was locked up with his family in a Tule Lake internment camp for Japanese Americans, and he could have been permanently embittered by what ranks as one of the nation's more shameful actions toward its own citizens. Instead, decades later he sought the path of reconciliation, having legislation passed for an official apology and restitution for internees.

Matsui also became an expert on Social Security. The 2001 Social Security commission, engaged in an early effort to privatize the program, was rattled by Matsui's objections and never recovered its footing. Would he have had the same effect today? Maybe not. At a moment when ideology has been elevated above facts by President Bush, expertise is viewed by many conservatives as a handicap, not a requirement, when overhauling big government programs. But Bush's path will certainly be easier without having to confront the likes of Matsui. One colleague said Matsui won victories "not by being the loudest, but by being the smartest."

Matsui was no blind loyalist. He thought for himself, raising eyebrows among the liberals in his party when he backed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the fast-tracking of other trade agreements. But in the last two years, he served in one of the party's key posts as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was a ranking Democratic member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

As Democrats gear up to battle Bush, Matsui may seem like a relic of a bygone era. But his quiet and authoritative approach will be sorely missed in a Congress that seems to lower the bar for outlandish behavior with each succeeding session.

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