I first met Rod Grams 20 years ago, weeks after he was first elected to Congress.
Having just left a job on Capitol Hill to attend law school, I was a little skeptical about coming back to work for a freshman member in the minority. And, having had my fill of inflated egos in official Washington, I was more than a little cynical about meeting the latest “distinguished gentleman from the Sixth District of Minnesota.”
As I entered the room, I saw a face I recognized from local television. As he introduced himself, I heard the rich, sonorous tones of the former disc jockey and news anchor. I braced myself for the “Ted Baxter turned politician” caricature I had dreamed up in my head: loud, bombastic, and overflowing with the false air of ego that comes with too many congratulatory pats on the back.
Instead, Rod was quiet. He cracked a few, self-deprecating jokes to cut the tension in the room. He listened patiently to my advice — advice he had already heard countless times. Instead of congressman-elect Grams, I had met Rod Grams. And I liked him.
Rod told me that he ran for Congress because of the burdens that federal regulations had placed on him as a small-business man. He told me there were a lot of people like him: quiet, struggling to balance their books or make ends meet, and wary of the government that promised to help but often hindered in practice. He wanted to be their voice in a Washington that only seemed to hear the loudest and most entitled.
“Most people don’t have time to leave their jobs or their kids at home to march on Washington. They deserve to be heard, too,” he would say with a shy smile.
As the most ardent anti-big-government politician ever elected to statewide office in Minnesota, Rod routinely stirred up a clamorous chorus of criticism — from political opponents, the Washington establishment and the media. He was often overshadowed by larger-(and louder)-than-life Minnesota contemporaries, like Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone.
Despite that, Rod persevered by continuing to represent the quiet people. As a freshman in Congress, he introduced legislation providing for a $500-per-child tax credit — taking up the mantle before most in Washington cared or even knew about the issue. But, as the family tax credit grew into the centerpiece of the GOP takeover in 1994, he let others grab the headlines and kept his nose to the grindstone.
As his Senate press spokesman, I appointed myself guardian of the public image — focused more on Rod’s winning re-election than on accomplishing something with the time he had already earned. When he would face the difficult choice between principle and political prudence, I would often ask half-jokingly if his decision was part of a “one-term or two-term” strategy. He would always smile before casting his vote for principle.
In politics, where most people make false claims about not forgetting who they are or where they came from, Rod always kept his ego in healthy check. He always had a kind word or a casual joke for those he encountered, whether a senator, a staffer or a casual passerby. Even as Sen. Grams, he never let the position, the status nor the adulation change him. He was still Rod Grams from Crown, Minn.
A month ago, I saw my friend for the last time, as he was fighting his last fight.
Rod was quiet. He cracked a few, self-deprecating jokes to cut the tension in the room. He listened patiently to my stories — stories he had already heard countless times.
And I liked him.
Peter Hong served as press secretary to Sen. Grams and can be reached at email@example.com.