Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Former Congressman Howard Wolpe Memorialized by Friends and Former Constituents

Courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives
Courtesy of WMU News

Friends of former Rep. Howard Wolpe gathered at Western Michigan University (WMU) on Tuesday to remember the man they had loved, admired and worked for in countless campaigns.

The seven-term U.S. congressman (1979-93) died at his home in Saugatuck, Mich. on October 25.  He was 71 and had a heart ailment.

Dignitaries from various periods in his life spoke of his faithfulness and passion to principle and problem solving whether it was legislation that allowed right turns on red or what was seen as his greatest achievement, passage of the U.S. Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 that imposed sanctions against South Africa.

Lynn Jondahl, former state representative and Wolpe colleague, set the tone as master of ceremonies by quoting James Baldwin that Wolpe was a man who “earn[ed] one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” 

Jondahl also read condolence letters from President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  The president characterized Wolpe as a “courageous fighter” and one who “helped make government work as a force for good.” 

The former political science professor turned legislator “obsessed with wrestling with ideas and theories” to get “reasonable people to come together to reach reasonable solutions to problems,” said Jondahl.

One of Wolpe’s first public actions took place in Kalamazoo in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He organized a march to the all-white male City Commission demanding they do something about prejudice and racism in the city, said Chet Rogers, a colleague, friend, former campaign manager and aide.

The march came out of a brainstorming session that concluded the best way of attacking racism was to educate and change the white community. 

This action gave Wolpe the reputation as the town radical, said Rogers.  It later led him to a seat on the City Commission where he was elected to two terms and able to make some small changes. 

He then went to the state legislature in 1972 and became only the second Democrat to win that district in history.  Wolpe’s hands-on, door-to-door campaigning and constituent services led him to the U.S. Congress in 1978 after losing a 1976 bid by less than one percent.  He decided not to run for re-election in 1992 after redistricting. 

“Howard believed that government could be good and that the job of government was to create a fair and just society,” said Rogers.  “He worked at this fearlessly.”
 In this July 15, 1996 file photo, then United States presidential envoy Howard Wolpe, right, shakes hands with Burundian President Ntibantunganya Slyvestre at the presidential palace in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Sayyid Azim / AP

As much as he loved being a legislator, nothing has satisfied Wolpe more than being a peacemaker in one of the most volatile regions of Africa.

In 1994, after an unsuccessful bid for governor in Michigan, he served as the special envoy to the African Great Lakes region under President Bill Clinton until 2001.

Later, as director of the Africa Program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, his last position before retirement, Wolpe went beyond conventional diplomacy methods in order to help bring peace and reconciliation to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. 

In a previous interview with Wolpe, he said that his secret in handling conflict is providing a communication platform for all factions involved and letting them share with each other the ways they perceive their opponents.

Conventional diplomacy is aimed at obtaining a “quick acceptance,” to agreements drawn up by lawyers, said Wolpe.  The element missing in this process is taking into consideration the personalities of the leaders who have just signed the agreement.

He said he learned this technique from his child psychologist mother, Zelda Wolpe, and first saw it in action when she applied it during a racial strife situation in the Kalamazoo schools in 1970. 

Around the same time, Wolpe and Chet Rogers, were at WMU running simulations of SIMSOC, a role-playing “game” created by then University of Michigan sociologist William Gamson.  The simulation requires participants to cope with the daily problems of governing society and to grapple with issues like abuse of power, justice, diversity, trust, and leadership as they negotiate their way through problems like labor-management strife, political turmoil, and natural disasters.

Former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan who served with Wolpe on the state legislature, also spoke highly of Wolpe saying he was “smart, serious, energetic, full of hope” as he worked on pet issues like the environment, peace, women’s rights, labor, people with disabilities and racial justice. 

“He had the skill of putting coalitions together [with both sides of the aisle] and to create the dynamics to get something done.” 

Bonior pointed to Wolpe’s fight for sanctions against South Africa.

Wolpe sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired that panel’s Subcommittee on Africa.  He wrote legislation against apartheid in South Africa and, after President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, he got Congress to override the veto.

Wolpe did this despite the fact that two major corporations in his district, the Kellogg Company and the Upjohn Company, opposed him.  Nevertheless, he remained in communication with them and he made friends with Nelson Mandala after his release from prison. 

“Few people make a significant difference on the world stage,” said Bonior.  “Howard did.  And, by his actions, he moved us closer to racial justice and harmony.”

Steve McDonald, director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, said he sat beside Wolpe when he berated an African president intending to go to war.  He saw how he worked with hardened Hutu and Tutsi soldiers by having them share their fears with each other.

In doing so, “they realized the aspirations and fears of the other guy,” said McDonald, and that changed the conversation.

Peter Yarrow of the Peter, Paul and Mary singing group, was friends with Wolpe and sang two songs in honor of him:  “Don’t Laugh at Me” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” 

Wolpe is survived by his wife, Julie Fletcher, and a son, Michael.  He lost his first wife, Judy, in 2006 when she drowned off the coast of Guatemala while the couple was on vacation. 

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