John M. Slack Jr.

Charleston Daily Mail
March 1, 1979

Slack: A Vote For Tradition

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series profiling West Virginia's six-man congressional delegation by Daily Mail Washington correspondent Bob Kittle.

WASHINGTON - John M. Slack, for 20 years the man who has represented central West Virginia in the House, likes to tell a story about his boyhood in Charleston.

The tale is a genuine Tom Sawyer anecdote, but with a decidedly different twist.

As the account goes, young Slack arose before dawn one summer morning and walked to the Virginia Street home of a prominent businessman, Jerry McJunkin.

A supplier of oil and natural gas rigging equipment, McJunkin was known for being an early riser. But when he got out of bed that particular morning at 5 o'clock, he found Slack already sitting on his lawn with an offer to paint the fence around his business.

"I've never shrunk from work," says Slack, ending the story. "I'd just die if I had to go down to Florida and sit in a condominium."

That incident can be contrasted, though, with a more recent anecdote involving work, Slack and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, D-Mass.

O'Neill, searching for congressmen to fill vacancies on the controversial House ethics committee after a plea for volunteers fell short, contacted Slack a few weeks ago to ask if he would mind serving.

"I told Tip I already had a heavy workload, but that if necessary I would serve on the committee in the 96th Congress - and I was damn clear to say the 96th Congress only," Slack recalled.

A few days later, he was surprised - and not overjoyed - to read in the Washington Post that he had been assigned to the panel, which investigates charges of ethical misconduct against House members. "It was somewhat of a surprise when I was told it was in the Post. I didn't realize Tip was putting my name in for consideration. I thought we would talk about it a little more first," Slack said.

It was not so much the extra work that he minded, but the sensitive nature of it.

For the political style of the 63-year-old Slack is better suited to the smoke-filled backrooms of a county courthouse - which he left to come to the House in 1959 - than to the television cameras and klieg lights that increasingly keep politicians before the public eye.

He is more comfortable relating yarns about his early years than delivering stirring speeches on the House floor; more at ease when he can sit back and place a pinch of snuff between his lip and gum than when fielding questions from reporters at a press conference.

His friendly, casual approach results in a low profile.

In his 1974 bid for re-election, one of 11 consecutive successful races, Slack was challenged by two more outspoken candidates, former state Sen. Paul Kaufman and state Supreme Court Justice Darrell McGraw. Both liberals, Kaufman and McGraw were backed by Common Cause, the Washington-based "citizens' lobby," which scored Slack for voting to keep sessions of the House Appropriations Committee behind closed doors.

Yet, his views prevails today in the dealings of the ethics committee, which he believes must be conducted in private to prevent the reputations of innocent individuals from being destroyed by unsubstantiated charges.

"If there's the first leak to the press, I'm going to resign," he vowed. "If anybody leaks anything, I'm quitting."

Slack, a former Kanawha County assessor, admires the old-fashioned disciplined style of congressional leaders like the legendary Sam Rayburn of Texas, a former speaker of the House.

"Sam Rayburn ran things with a firm hand. He was a very firm man. In those days, when a committee chairman told you something, you could sleep on it."

And he remembers the days when members carefully observed the House dress code, which stipulates dark-colored suits for men. "Now you see members every day in bright sports jackets. I've even seen members come on the floor to vote in jeans with jackets on."

It is the virtue of discipline, perhaps, that he feels is most lacking in fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter. Although he believes the president has shown courage, he does not believe he is a strong leader.

"Carter is not a decisive enough president," he commented. "We need someone to take the bit in his mouth and go. I just can't say Carter is a strong president when you look at the overall."

Slack's voting record shows him generally to be the most conservative of the six Democrats who represent West Virginia in Congress, but he is on the liberal side of many issues, including abortion and most bills sought by labor groups.

The American Conservative Union, the chief lobbying group for conservative causes, lists Slack as supports its position 53 percent of the time last year. That compares to a 13 percent rating given Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, rated by the ACU as the most liberal member of the West Virginia delegation.

Conversely, the liberal Americans For Democratic Action give Slack the lowest marks of any member of the delegation. The 3rd District congressman agreed with ADA's position on only 25 percent of last year's votes.

But no congressman can please all of the people all of the time. By Slack's count, there are 500 outside pressure groups - most representing opposing points of view - that rate members of Congress. "And they're multiplying all the time," he said.

As chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls State Department spending, Slack opposes legislation to implement the Panama Canal treaties, an agreement he believes also should have been considered by the House because it involves the transfer of U.S. property.

And although he has expressed concern for the security of Taiwan, he supports Carter's diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China, a country the congressman twice visited because of his subcommittee chairmanship.

Slack does not exert strong influence, however, on foreign affairs. Instead, he devotes most of his staff and personal energies to solving problems brought to him by his constituents.

"The name of the job is to represe[n]t the people, and you represent the people when you solve their problems," he said. "I don't have my staff studying legislation and issues. I have my staff in the main working on problems that come from constituents."

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