“The greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours a day.”
– Sinclair Lewis, “Main Street”
He was elected to Congress at age 30, when gasoline was 55 cents a gallon, men wore polyester leisure suits, Eric Clapton was singing “I Shot the Sheriff,” and “Rhoda” and “Kojak” were on television. He served for three terms, representing the Minnesota district that Sinclair Lewis used as the setting for “Main Street,” and then Rick Nolan retired from politics – unless, of course, you count being a member of the Planning Commission of Mission Township (population 733).
It was in the pages of “Main Street” that Lewis wrote that “perhaps we want a more conscientious life,” adding: “We’re tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. ... We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We’re tired of hearing politicians and priests and cautious reformers ... coax us, ‘Be calm! Be patient! Wait!’”
In retirement, Rick Nolan, now 73, grew tired of deferring hope, and especially grew tired of hearing politicians and priests and cautious reformers urge calm and patience. He’s back in Congress after a hiatus of a third of a century – the longest such break in American history. It’s as if Nolan Ryan, who had 367 strikeouts in 1974, returned to the mound today. But Rick Nolan still has his fastball.
He returned four years ago to a political institution that had changed utterly, and that was before Donald J. Trump stormed into the capital and changed everything utterly again. The rhythms of the House had been altered, the congressional way of life had been transformed, the way the denizens of Capitol Hill operated had been amended, although – sad, from Nolan’s point of view – the very act of amending a piece of legislation itself had been revised, but not extended.
Nolan, elected to the House in the 1974 Democratic landslide after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, was a visitor from another place and another era. (He and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont are the only two of the “Watergate Babies” left on Capitol Hill.) That was not a happy time, though it was a heady time, especially for Democratic insurgents who overthrew three veteran committee chairmen and many of the hoary traditions of the House. It is impossible today to explain the extent of the upheaval – revolution on the House floor and in the subcommittee chambers! – except perhaps to witness Washington in the Trump era.
But that was another time. “What is so dramatically different is the combination of the waste of congressional time and the amount of time spent on raising money,” Nolan was saying the other day. “When I served before, there were no (money-raising) call centers across the street. No one said you should spend 20 percent of your time dialing for dollars and another 10 percent at fundraisers. One of the reasons I’ve been effective is that I won’t go to the call centers. I didn’t come here to become a middle-level telemarketer. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you go to work.”
A study by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, employing a complex formula, concluded that Nolan was the second-most effective Democratic lawmaker. But the greatest value Nolan may have on Capitol Hill is as a barometer of change in the House.
“He has a very valuable perspective,” said former GOP Rep. Vin Weber, who expected to run against Nolan in 1980 only to find that the lawmaker had announced his retirement. “The Washington he returned to has become extremely politicized and the demands are far different.”
That is an understatement. Listen to Nolan’s critique, a stream-of-consciousness indictment of the way Washington works today:
“Members of Congress don’t come to Washington focusing on work. At the end of the day, legislating and democracy take a lot of time. We used to be in session five days a week, and in committees that met five days a week, and if you had an amendment you had a chance to offer it. That consumed your time. It does not anymore. The gridlock and rancor come from the system that denies members opportunities to present their views, partially because there is very little time anymore. What ends up being presented causes more partisanship.
“The result is measure after measure that is partisan in nature to appeal to the majority’s base – and no opportunity for anyone else, even within the majority party, to offer their ideas. This is something that even Tea Party members feel. They didn’t come here only to raise money.”
Nolan’s refusal to raise (much) money may be one of the reasons he’s a target for Republican strategists. Another: Trump carried his district, which includes Duluth and the Iron Range, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. That has to be unsettling for a lawmaker whose resume includes the Eugene McCarthy campaign of 1968 and a stint working for Sen. Walter F. Mondale – classic liberals from the (long-ago) period of Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party dominance in Minnesota. This isn’t the first time Nolan has expressed impatience with life on Capitol Hill. Some 36 years ago, when he left the House, he described Congress as “relatively impotent to make the changes the country needs.” That was a time when his party was in the majority. Today Republicans hold 46 more seats than the Democrats.
Nolan, who urged Sen. Edward Kennedy to challenge President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 primaries, may not lean as far to the left as he once did. But he has changed less than Congress has.
“He has a unique perspective fashioned from being a young member of Congress in the 1970s, leaving voluntarily, and then coming back with as much excitement and enthusiasm as he had there decades earlier,” said former Rep. Gerry Sikorski, a Minnesota Democrat who held the seat later.
Nolan’s congressional district may border Lake Superior and parts of Canada, but he is not on the fringes of American politics. He believes much of life on Capitol Hill today “is an egregious waste of time and an outrageous abuse of democratic processes.” The country agrees with Rick Nolan more today than it did the first time he was in Congress.
• David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.