Howard Coble’s cult of personality

by Jordan Green

The dirty secret of US Rep. Howard Coble’s staying power — 26 years in office, and counting — is his expert management of press relations. Of course, the foundational element of the congressman’s continuing popularity is at the retail level — personable one-on-one encounters with voters that display the politician’s humility and graciousness, and make the recipients feel appreciated and understood.

I remember when I introduced my wife to the congressman at a candidate forum. He asked her which high school she attended.

“The Wildcats,” he said, right on cue when she told him Eastern Guilford. She was surprised and delighted that he possessed this piece of information. Around the same time, I read a press account about Coble using the “name-the-school-mascot” device on a manufacturing worker in Davidson County with salutary results.

Of course, the press only reinforces and extends the mythology around the 80-year-old bachelor congressman by referencing a widely shared set of experiences among constituents.

I’ve found that Coble is always good for a half-hour interview.

I’ve received at least one Christmas card from him. His chief of staff, Ed McDonald, is unfailingly helpful with every query. The congressman makes a point to say that the media has been fair to him, even when the most recent article may not be particularly flattering. Once, after I showed up unannounced at a business roundtable and the congressman asked me to introduce myself, he called back to apologize for not recognizing me. The impression left on reporters, as on constituents, is that this is a man who holds genuine regard for you.

I remember going into an interview in 2008 determined to nail down some admission of error in Coble’s ideological position or failing in his job performance. I came away disarmed and feeling that any critical word would come across as churlish or uncharitable. Maybe there are tougher reporters than I in this market, but I doubt by much. In other words, I’ve learned to not underestimate Howard Coble.

I suspect that beneath the relentless courtesy exhibited by the kindly congressman is a need to be loved. I don’t mean to single Coble out because this very human drive, taken to an unhealthy level, is a common affliction among those who pursue and hold elected office. It may be churlish to say so, but self-absorption in political life undermines rather than enhances a legacy.

The stated reason for Coble’s Dec. 28 news conference was to discuss his recent hospitalization for upper respiratory problems. But considering that the congressman had previously pledged to announce in December whether he would seek reelection, reporters understandably wondered whether this was the big moment.

In fact, no, Coble said. That promise had been premised on the assumption that redistricting maps would be finalized by this time, and since they were not he was going to give himself more time to decide.

Coble chairs the House Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law, but otherwise is not particularly known as a power broker on Capitol Hill. Asked by a reporter in Greensboro last week to say what he has done in Congress that’s worthwhile, Coble said, “What I’ve contributed that’s positive, if you’ll pardon my immodesty, is constituent services.”

He took a sanguine stance about the need for leadership to get the economy moving again and to resolve major impasses in the government over spending, taxation and the deficit.

“Part of our problem is occurring in Europe,” he said. “Folks, we’re in a global situation, whether we like it or not…. But you’re right: We could and should be doing better. I’m the ultimate optimist, and I think in due time it will turn, but it ain’t gonna happen tomorrow.”

Pressed by News & Record reporter Mark Binker on whether his longstanding refusal to accept the congressional pension would end up being a moot point if he doesn’t retire, Coble responded instinctively — by falling back on a story.

“You all have heard most all my stories anyway,” the congressman said. He hesitated for a moment, and then told the story anyway. He didn’t fault the reporter for asking the question, but it reminded him of a candidate forum at GTCC when a young woman had thanked him for refusing to accept the congressional pension, prompting Coble’s opponent to say, “Of course Coble’s turned down his congressional pension; he’s never going to retire.”

The line got a lot of laughs at the forum, but not so many in the recounting for a scrum of reporters.

Coble said the congressional pension costs taxpayers $25 million to $30 million per year, and he would like to see it eliminated. To put this in perspective, President Obama’s requested outlay for the Small Business Administration is $1 billion.

Piggybacking on News & Record editorial writer Doug Clark, I asked Coble what unique role he might play in tackling the economic crisis across the land and the budgetary challenges in federal government.

The congressman paused for a moment, and returned to familiar territory.

“I think one way would be the congressional pension,” he said.

“Psychologically, people look very negatively at it, and extend that negativism one step further to those members of Congress for being too selfish.”

The seat may belong to the constituents of North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, but the show is all about Howard Coble.