WASHINGTON -- Pentagon chief Leon Panetta strode into the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, surrounded by military officers in dress-green uniforms with rows of medals on their chests.
The glittering hall with gold-gilt walls and two giant crystal chandeliers bespoke a bygone era when government was good and in the black. So did the mainly silver-haired guests whod come one recent evening to roast Rep. Norm Dicks on his retirement from nearly four decades in Congress.
I wanted to have a final opportunity to come up here and pay tribute to this son of a bitch, Panetta deadpanned as laughter engulfed the vast room.
Turning serious, the former CIA director and California congressman said Dicks has been a close friend since their days as Senate aides in the early 1970s. Recalling the two mens recent visit to Naval Base Kitsap, Panetta said the huge facility in Bremerton was one of many vital projects across Washington state that the lawmaker had helped thrive from his powerful post on the House Appropriations Committee.
Dicks is a master of the earmark, congressionally steered funding that was once a badge of honor but has become, Panetta said, an unfair symbol of government waste and pork-barrel spending.
Earmarks is not a bad word, Panetta said. After a pause, with the audience starting to laugh again even before he resumed speaking, Panetta added: Norm got his share.
Dicks retirement Jan. 2 will further thin the ranks of an already vanishing breed: lawmakers who work together across party lines and view bringing home federal largess as a key part of their core duty to help their districts and their states.
A member of the College of Cardinals which controls much of the federal budget and arguably the states most powerful politician, Dicks leaves on his own terms. Though clearly irritated by the partisan bitterness, he is without rancor.
Im not leaving here with a bad feeling, Dicks said in an interview. Im leaving with the feeling I made a contribution toward making things better.
Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and current chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he and Dicks, the panels senior Democrat, set aside partisan differences to fund worthy initiatives.
I found that Norm is really a brilliant person, Rogers said. He understands that our nation is built on vision, ideas and ambition. But he also believes that a vision without funding is a hallucination.
Former Washington state GOP chairman Chris Vance said Republicans in the 6th Congressional District were sometimes frustrated that members of their own party from elsewhere had nice things to say about Dicks.
I dont know anyone who hated Norm Dicks, Vance said. He was a lawmakers lawmaker. Everyone respected him.
Dicks learned his lessons from two of the best the late Washington state Democratic Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. Revered as Maggie and Scoop, from the 1950s until the early 1980s they were dominant figures on Capitol Hill.
Dicks is the last direct link in the states congressional delegation to those Senate lions.
Magnuson, on whose staff Dicks served an eight-year political apprenticeship, taught Dicks the need to take care of the people back home, particularly when it came to jobs.