The Congressman Amid The Clutter
Former Congressman Bill Clinger, who died last month at age 92, dressed like a fancy-pants dude, and why not? He was a scion of a family that had grown rich in the oil business and a successful personal and corporate lawyer.
When he ran for Congress in the 1970s, the Warren native put away the banker/barrister vests he had favored, but he kept the dark suits that gave his tall, imposing figure an air of authority.
His grin was anything but stuffy. Clinger reveled in being unpretentious. He surprised voters and non-voters alike with his easygoing personality and aw-shucks anecdotes during 20 years of politicking.
Back in 1992, my then-wife was one of those surprised people.
She was also aghast when she came home from work in DuBois to find suit-clad Clinger plus three business-suited aides sitting gingerly on our couch and love seat that were draped in plastic.
They were trying to avoid getting paint on their duds. Her husband was speckled with the paint I had been applying to those walls. And, spatters and all, I was interviewing Clinger.
“I really need to get this story into tomorrow’s newspaper,” Bill had said when he called earlier that morning. I cannot now recall the story or the urgency. I suspect it was related to Bill’s re-election campaign.
“I can meet you at the newspaper any time this afternoon,” he said.
“Bill, I can’t. I just can’t leave the house” I retorted. “I am halfway through painting a large room. I promised my wife that I would have this section done by suppertime.”
“Can you talk to me if we come there?” he asked.
I explained the paint-spattered mess in the house. He chuckled. “I am at home with paint,” he said.
I gave him the address of our house on Pentz Run Road, just south of DuBois’ city limits.
He came. I wiped my hands and got my notebook. His entourage pursed their lips and stood or sat stiffly, avoiding touching anything.
Bill plopped onto a couch, stretched his long legs onto the hassock and talked.
He stood up and warmly greeted Nancy, who had known nothing about the hastily arranged meeting. I still chuckle ruefully at remembering her shocked-to-silence expression –and she let me know later that entertaining big shots while painting a room was not her idea of propriety.
Clinger grinned even more broadly, and said he felt quite at home.
“Can I borrow your paint cloth?” he asked, wiping a spot off his wrist, as they got ready to leave.
After supper, I left for the office to write the story, with her “How could you….?” castigations trailing after me. I think she spent the time I was away talking on the telephone in those days of extra costs for long-distance calls, telling her mother and perhaps a sister or two that her husband was a … I think the word she used most often was “numbskull.”
Bill was as at home in our torn-up house as he was at elegant summer gatherings at prestigious Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown N.Y., where he kept a residence.
Bill and I weren’t friends in the hang-out-together sense. We moved in different circles when we both lived in Warren. Our jobs, politician and journalist, sometimes put us at cross-purposes.
But we were friendly, because Bill had the knack of liking all sorts of people. Though he came from wealth, he could fit into church suppers or the bleachers at baseball games.
He rose to national prominence in the last years when politically moderate Republicans became leaders in Congress. As chairman of the House Government Oversight committee, he waded through the scandals enmeshing the Presidency of Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary. Private conversations with Clinger set me on the path to change my voter registration to Democrat twice, in 2012 and 2016, so I could vote against Hillary in those primary elections, but that is another story.
Clinger was open about political realities. He barely survived one re-election challenge after he voted against a Democratic push to increase Social Security payments by increasing the deficit, but voting that way was the right thing to do in Clinger’s view. After that election, he calmly told me where he felt our newspaper’s coverage had been unfair to him — and then we moved on.
I have known the men (no women, yet) who have represented our area in Congress since the 1950s. In my opinion, Bill Clinger was head-and-shoulders the best of the bunch, because of his integrity, grasp of issues and low-key competence. He got the job done without devolving into today’s attack-dog politics.
And he accepted people wherever they were, even if in a half-painted house.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org