Howard Metzenbaum, the scourge of conservatives in the Senate for 18 years, has passed away at 90. Senator No retired in 1995, but not before building a reputation as an opponent of big business and the union lobby’s best friend on Capitol Hill. However, he should be remembered for a hit job delivered on national television that recalled the worst history of the Senate:
Former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat who was a feisty self-made millionaire before he began a long career fighting big business in the Senate, died Wednesday night. He was 90.
Metzenbaum died at his home near., said Joel Johnson, his former chief of staff. No cause was given.
During 18 years on Capitol Hill, until his retirement in 1995, Metzenbaum came to be known as “Senator No” and “Headline Howard” for his abilities to block legislation and get publicity for himself.
He was a cantankerous firebrand who didn’t need a microphone to hold a full auditorium spellbound while dropping rhetorical bombs on big oil companies, the insurance industry, savings and loans, and the National Rifle Association, to name just a few favorite targets.
Metzenbaum was a formidable opponent, as the above shows, even when the opponent was a fellow Democrat. He tried to beat John Glenn for his Senate seat in a primary race in 1974. He accused Glenn, a Marine Corps test pilot and original astronaut, of never having held a real job, an accusation that infuriated Glenn. He told Metzenbaum to ask any Gold Star mother whether he son held a real job while dying for his country in a speech that became famous, and Metzenbaum lost the election. Glenn only started speaking to Metzenbaum when he ran for President in 1984.
Unfortunately, this was not out of character for Metzenbaum. This same kind of ruthless attack style would blow up in Metzenbaum’s face during a little-remembered but defining moment of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Metzenbaum attempted to smear one of Thomas’ witnesses in rebuttal to Anita Hill with a bizarre and unsworn allegation that John Doggett — himself an outspoken black liberal — had sexually harassed a white woman in his workplace during his first week at his law firm eight years prior to the hearings. It provided an eerie echo of the kind of accusation that Thomas himself was answering, and Doggett was outraged:
Mr. DOGGETT. Senator, your comments about this document are one of the reasons that our process of government is falling apart. First of all, Senator, I have a copy of the statement that this person met—it is called a transcript of proceedings. But, Senator, if you read this, it is as telephone conversation that she has with some staff members pro and against Mr. Thomas, and she is not under oath. I did not do any of the things that she alleged. In fact, the first time any of these issues were raised was the day before I was supposed to come here, 8 1/2 years later. I knew when I put my information into the ring, that I was saying I am open season. For anybody to believe that, on the first day of work, for a woman working in the xerox room, who is 19 years old, a 33-year-old black man would walk up to a 19-year-old white girl and kiss her on the mouth as the first thing that they did, whoever believes that really needs psychiatric care. But let me talk about the facts, since you brought up this statement, which was not made under oath, which was not made consistent with any of the rules that you Senators are supposed to be responsible for, since this is the Judiciary Committee, let me talk about that, since you asked the question and went on and on and on. During that time that she—I have read this statement. If she had made it under oath, Senator, I would go to court, butSenator METZENBAUM. This isn’t her statement. I am reading from your statement, Mr. Doggett.
Mr. DOGGETT. The statement that you read from was a discussion with me, and consistently your staff people said, “I don’t have the transcript, I don’t remember the exact facts.” Well, I have the transcript and the exact facts show this woman to be a profound liar who does not even remember the facts accurately.
As I wrote last year, if anyone doubted that there existed a concerted effort to commit character assassination in that proceeding, that portion of the testimony should have removed all doubt. The modus operandi was the same — a sexual smear against a black attorney designed to discredit him. It again relied on unsubstantiated allegations, culled from an incident that purportedly occurred years beforehand. And it was designed to intimidate the target into withdrawing from the proceeding, and also failed.
And Howard Metzenbaum delivered that smear. Joe Biden was eventually forced to rule Metzenbaum out of order after Doggett ripped him apart on national television and exposed the entire tawdry episode as an exercise in McCarthyism. Be sure to read my whole post from my archives.
Metzenbaum’s passing is a tragedy for his family, but his departure from politics was anything but a tragedy for the nation.