The place was the U.S. House of Representatives. The time was the mid-1980s. I was a relative newcomer to Congress from California, and the Republican conference was hosting President Ronald Reagan. The president, beloved by the members, was coasting through a question-and-answer session, fielding the mostly "softball" questions with his legendary charm.
Then Helen Delich Bentley, even more of a newcomer than I, stepped to the microphone. Her question was typical Bentley — blunt and reflective of the interests of the blue collar folks she represented. What was the administration doing, she asked, about the thousands of American maritime jobs that were moving offshore?
The Gipper paused, then answered. "Helen, let me tell you a little story," The president recited an anecdote that would have mollified most of his Republican crowd. Helen was not moved.
"Mr. President , that's very nice, she dismissed. "Now let me tell you a little story."
The president, unused to being "storied back at," listened, with some surprise, as Helen Delich Bentley cited the unemployment statistics of her maritime workers. At the end of the chastisement, she was rewarded for her gutsiness with the applause of her colleagues and a big grin from her president.
The incident reflected the bigger-than-life qualities of the lady from Maryland who will be 90 years old on Thanksgiving Day.
The former maritime reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun was "discovered" by Richard Nixon and appointed Federal Maritime Commission chairman in 1969. She later went on to serve five terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and was generally a businesswoman extraordinaire. The Port of Baltimore is named after her, and she continues to be a leader today.
Helen Delich Bentley has made her presence felt in every room she ever entered. I remember her as being grounded in character and courage, always ready to do battle for what was right, with a temper that softened easily to laughter once her point was made. She understood like few others the need for Americans, workers and management, to move forward together in prosperity. She disliked "free" trade, which she so often characterized correctly as a "one-way-street."
Once, in a hearing focused on the purchase of foreign made equipment for U.S. naval vessels, Ms. Bentley cross-examined a testifying admiral until he could take no more. "It's like this Mrs. Bentley, he exasperated; they make these parts cheaper in Korea than they do in the U.S."
"Well, admiral," legend has Helen responding, "they make admirals cheaper in Korea too, and maybe we should buy some!"
Helen's trademark was loyalty. She couldn't be dragged away from the defense of a friend, even when lots of political capital was at stake. On the personal side, she regarded public service as never forgetting anyone. Every political event I ever attended with Helen was followed with her carrying a meal to the driver of her waiting car.
Once when Helen invited me to the Veteran's Day dinner that she labeled the "biggest in America," I concluded my speech and, after a few goodbyes, headed for the door.
"Not so fast," growled Helen as she blocked my path. "Now we personally thank the veterans at the tables for their service."
"All of them?" I whimpered as I surveyed the ocean of attendees. Ms. Bentley had already turned to the first table and was shaking hands with the seated veterans; 800 handshakes later, she told me I had done a passable job and would be considered as a candidate for next year's speech. I left Baltimore with the everlasting impression of a woman filled with character and devotion to public service and a moral compass more on course than any ship that ever sailed out of the Harbor.
It is fitting that Thanksgiving Day will be Helen Delich Bentley's birthday. Among our other blessings we should be thankful that our nation was blessed with this remarkable combination of toughness, character and kindness that is the lady from Baltimore.
Duncan L. Hunter is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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