Flag-waving Bartlett wins hearts of the west

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE CONGRESSMAN thought it would be easy to find a community willing to honor a soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Naming a post office for the veteran seemed a suitable tribute.

But Roscoe G. Bartlett found surprising opposition at not one, not two but in three Howard County communities before trying an end-run at Savage: Without local consultation, he got the House of Representatives to rededicate the town post office.

When surprised residents objected to Mr. Bartlett's action, the four-term congressman curtly challenged their patriotism.

That recent episode well reflects the missteps that have marked the 74-year-old's tenure as Sixth District representative. And it illustrates his unrelenting effort to play the patriot, the voice for military veterans.

Above all, run it up the flag pole and quote the Constitution, a copy of which is always in his pocket.

These are the political pillars of the former physiology professor, space scientist, inventor, farmer and homebuilder from Frederick who's had little difficulty keeping his seat in rock-solid conservative Republican Western Maryland since first winning through an extraordinary turn of events in 1992.

He's by far the most conservative member of Congress from Maryland, and proud of it. He voted more often against President Clinton's programs in 1999 than anyone else on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Bartlett eagerly embraced the radical Contract With America manifesto of resurgent Republicans in 1994 and never renounced one element. He was the only Maryland congressman to vote for all four articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton.

That right-wing record gets a strong reception in his six-county district. Mr. Bartlett seems to accurately reflect the sentiments of his constituency, without even trying. "I'm one of the luckiest people down here. I essentially never have to vote to violate my conscience," he tells the faithful.

Despite repeated predictions that the district's makeup is becoming more moderate, the Bartlett message and its effectiveness remain unchanged.

He doesn't spend much on campaigns. And he doesn't raise a lot of PAC money. But his opponents typically don't raise much money to challenge him, either.

Mr. Bartlett made two unsuccessful runs for Congress in 1980 and 1982. In 1992, he narrowly won a three-way primary by 646 votes, and got lucky: Seven-term conservative Democratic Rep. Beverly Byron lost her primary in a shocker to moderate state Del. Tom Hattery. She then endorsed Mr. Bartlett, who went on to become the oldest freshman in the 103rd Congress.

Unyielding in his belief in less government and smaller budgets, he has gotten highest ratings from taxpayer-rights groups, the Right to Life PAC, the Chamber of Commerce and Liberty Lobby.

Not surprisingly, he's at the bottom of rankings by the League of Conservation Voters, ACLU and Americans for Democratic Action.

He's resolutely opposed to abortion and gun control, in all manner. He doubts the value of the United Nations. He's skeptical of U.S. involvement abroad, including foreign aid.

A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he points to the great tolls of tobacco and alcohol, but philosophically can't support a government ban.

Though he never served in the armed forces -- he got a divinity school deferment during World War II -- Mr. Bartlett vocally supports military and veterans benefits.

In fact, his most prominent achievement in eight years has been banning sexually explicit magazines from military stores. He's also fought for separate basic training of male and female recruits, for keeping women from submarine duty and for same-gender missile silo assignments.

But he's not a total military hawk. He's among the congressmen appealing to the Supreme Court the president's authority to conduct what he considers a war in former Yugoslavia.

Clearly, veterans are an overarching concern. Asked why he voted against funds for a bridge to connect interstate highways in Frederick County, Mr. Bartlett replied, "There's no way I'm going to build that bridge with money (taken) from veterans' health care."

After an initial burst of ideological idealism, which saw him reject as unnecessary federal aid for his own district to dig out of a fierce winter blizzard, Mr. Bartlett has since found an accommodation with such philosophical conflicts.

"In every appropriations bill I could find 100 things to vote against it for, and 100 that would make me vote for it," he says.

An early supporter of term limits, Mr. Bartlett now disclaims any pledge to limit his own tenure. "I'm young enough to be Strom Thurmond's son," he tells anyone who asks if he's thinking of stepping down.

He's become a believer in emergency farm aid, even as he opposes government handouts. He voted against NAFTA, even though he supports free trade in principle. Lately, he's become an opponent of the death penalty, after years of supporting it.

And despite his lectures on ideological consistency, Mr. Bartlett has experienced a few conflicts himself.

While raging against government subsidies, Farmer Bartlett took federal payments for keeping his croplands idle.

And while he's against government curbs on business, he once pushed for stricter controls on industries that interfered with his farming.

Agriculture has been a lifetime occupation, from his boyhood in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Nearly 40 years ago he bought a 145-acre spread, Gayfield, outside Frederick, with its 32-room antebellum brick mansion. He and his wife have raised 10 children and uncounted sheep and goats. He still handles farm chores and commutes to Washington daily when Congress is in session.

He received his doctorate in physiology from the University of Maryland, taught at several colleges and did research for IBM, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the National Institutes of Health. He holds some 20 patents on breathing and life-support devices used by astronauts, divers and firemen.

In Congress, Mr. Bartlett has spent much of his time with minor issues on the Small Business, Armed Services and Science committees. His list of achievements, even during six years of a Republican majority, is slim. He's nowhere on the party leadership rolls.

The Bartlett persona plays best at home. He's responsive to constituent complaints, especially about the failings of the bureaucracy, and has a full-time office in four counties.

At a recent town meeting in Westminster, with a soft-spoken certitude he told the crowd that morality and education were the biggest issues with voters.

Yet most of them were there to ask about taxes, Social Security and Medicare. Still, they nodded in hushed agreement as the former teacher earnestly touched his fingers together and delivered a lecture on his concerns.

He assured them that he was fighting the devil, Bill Clinton, in trying to lower the budget, the national debt and taxes.

He bemoaned the immorality imposed by the marriage penalty tax -- cohabitation for tax advantages. Unfair tax burdens have forced too many wives to work, he said, contributing to more juvenile delinquency.

As for education, eliminating federal interference would do much to improve it, he said.Education is best left to localities and the best guarantee of a youngster's education is a committed family.

His own brand of federal aid to education is to fund 12 scholarships in his district each year, paid for by his congressional salary.

Several years ago, he got in hot water when he said a list of science scholarship winners did not have "normal American" names, suggesting there was a lesson to be learned in Asian-American family attitudes toward education. He was roundly criticized for insensitivity and he abjectly apologized -- but not for the idea.

Still, it's the patriot's cry to rally round the flag that is the essence of Bartlett politics. Recall the summer of the Middle East peace talks at Camp David, in the heart of his district. All flags were to be banned, to ease political tensions.

Roscoe G. Bartlett Jr., proud descendent of Josiah Bartlett, signer of the Declaration of Independence, heard that the American flag was taken down from the walls of Thurmont Elementary School, serving as the press center. He raced to the scene and declared his indignation. Responsive residents displayed the Stars and Stripes on front porches and on car antennas in support.

The flags were soon restored in the school. Mr. Bartlett declared victory.

Election 2000

Today, The Sun continues its editorial look at members of the Maryland congressional Delegation who face-re-election contests on Nov. 7.

Roscoe G. Bartlett (R)

6th Congressional District

Born: June 3, 1926, Moreland, Ky.

Years in Congress: 8

Prior office: none

Occupation: physiologist

Resident: Frederick County

An editorial in the Sept. 25 Sun should not have said that former Rep. Beverly Byron endorsed Roscoe G. Bartlett in the 1992 general election. The Sun regrets the error.
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