Thursday, September 28, 2017

Joe & Me

Former congressman Joe McDade died Sunday.  He was 85.  I send my sympathy to family and friends.

Let me tell you about a few encounters with the 18 termer.

The very first was on a Saturday afternoon in 1982.  I was a radio pup at WARM 590.  The congressman ventured up from his Virginia home to tour a tank plant in Lackawanna County.  During the tour, I asked if all those tanks were really necessary, and if we were building a local economy that was too dependent on the military.

McDade spun around, glared at me, and gave me a long lecture on the importance of jobs.  He finished what was an answer and a dressing down at the same time.  McDade then spun on his heels and continued the tour.  I should have been more aggressive, because I really wanted to ask about adding to the national debt and saddling future generations with the bill.

The congressman had a great thing going with radio for a long time.  Every week, there would be some recorded announcement from his Washington press office, usually about some local project that had secured funding.  We'd cut the recording up in to sound bites and use them in newscasts.  It was effective.  We took the recording.  There was no opportunity for questions, and there were really some things that needed to be asked.

Joe McDade announced his own indictment, which was sheer genius.  It also led to a tiff between my radio news director and I.  Not long after the indictment, McDade's people were offering actual telephone interviews with the congressman about something  The topic escapes my memory.  There was one condition:  we couldn't ask about the indictment.  The news director agreed to the condition.  I objected.  Someone else on the staff did the interview.  Years have not mellowed my opinion.  I respected my radio boss, but I still think he was very, very wrong on that one.

The Congressman appeared to have a great relationship with the local media.  I don't remember much critical reporting.  He was a popular figure, winning reelection by huge margins, and there was a reluctance to take on someone so  popular and allegedly powerful.  I never set out to take the guy down, just hold his feet to the fire.  Genuflecting was never one of my strong suits.

Let's talk about Steamtown for a moment.  I will always love Jim McNulty.  He was one of the few elected people around here who actually displayed vision.  He was a showman.  I could only imagine what would have happened if McNulty was still Scranton mayor when the John Oliver train thing rolled in to town.  Anyway, McNulty knew Scranton had a future in tourism, and he helped engineer (pardon the pun) bringing that rusting, bankrupt  pile of junk known as Steamtown USA from Vermont to Scranton.  Good idea.  Bad execution.  It was going under-- until Joe McDade had the National Park Service assume control.  I love Steamtown.  I worked on a special live TV broadcast for the grand opening.  It is among my career highlights.  In fact, I was at Steamtown just the other day.  I visit several times a year.  You can't escape the fact that Steamtown is more diesel than steam and most of its collection has absolutely no connection to Scranton.  Is it a plus for the area?  Yes!  A huge one!  Did it deserve a federal bail out? The project had its share of critics.

That's the problem, and I don't have the answer.  If it's in your congressional district, it's economic development.   If it's in someone else's, it's pork.  You wonder what worthy project somewhere else didn't get money because Steamtown did.

For years, McDade had people convinced that if he went away, the Tobyhanna Army Depot would disappear the next day.   Democrats were in control during most of Republican McDade's 18 terms.  Democrats determined Tobyhanna's fate, but you cannot deny that McDade had influence.  Was his importance over-stated?  Probably.  Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Who can forget McDade handing a local college a big check to study military families?  It was an effort that produced very little.  Your money was wasted.

Joe McDade went on trial in federal court for bribery, and the case was laughingly weak.  While McDade was found not guilty, it was clear he was leading the good life.  But then again, show me a congressman or congresswoman who isn't.

I was in Philadelphia for one of McDade's pre trial hearings the day the television station I was working for at the time was sold.  The congressman and I were chatting in the hallway, and we were talking about the sale.  I will never forget his words:  "Please tell me it's (the buyer) someone local."  It wasn't.  You know the rest.  It wasn't a happy ending.

I covered one of Joe McDade's last election nights, in 1996.  He seemed very relieved that he won, because the reputation had been tarnished by the indictment and trial.  My questioning was delicate, and probably way too long.  I started off by saying he was through a lot (veiled reference to bribery trial) and he was "at an age when many people retire."  I then asked if this was his last election night.  I can't recall his exact words, but in great McDade style, he avoided a direct answer.

Joe McDade wasn't broken.  The system is.  By most accounts, he was a decent individual.

So, how will history remember Joe McDade?  It depends who you speak with and where they live.  To those outside the region, McDade was the epitome of pork barrel and needless government spending.  If you live here, you will likely remember Joe McDade as the guy who put food on a lot of tables.

It's up to you to decide what is more important.