Why we should honor Hinchey

Knowing and liking somebody is more important than agreeing with all their political views. Think of the tremendous support Maurice Hinchey enjoyed in Ulster County during his long and distinguished political career.

From a conventional Saugerties working-class background, Hinchey the politician managed to eschew the tribalism that has come to dominate national politics.

While holding fast to a mostly progressive reading of American values, he could celebrate the virtues of many lifestyles and origins, and did. So it’s no surprise that a very wide range of people returned the compliment. He became the liberal edition of Everyman’s mirror.

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Dedicated independents, anarchists, flaming liberals, all varieties of middle-of-the-roaders, rock-ribbed Republicans and hidebound conservatives — none had trouble flocking to his banner, though they did so in varying numbers. They liked him because they felt him to be one of them. By temperament, Hinchey looked beyond divisions of class, background and status to a common humanity.

That was the secret of his political longevity. He connected.

Confounded by Hinchey’s success, the then-dominant local GOP, certain that the next election would surely be the time their candidate would defeat the upstart, put up a long succession of opponents against him. After losing a run for state assembly in 1972, Hinchey won 19 elections in a row for Assembly and Congress. Many Republican hopes were dashed. Hinchey retired with his win streak intact.

It was almost a decade ago that I had a couple of long conversations with Maurice Hinchey about national economic policy. The congressman was suspicious of Ben Bernanke, the George W. Bush appointee heading the Federal Reserve Bank. Hinchey wanted Congress to trim the Fed’s sails.

The Fed was a tool of Wall Street, he told me. Congress needed to rein it in. Too many people were suffering economic tribulations due to no fault of their own.

The local congressman wasn’t about to settle for less than a policy that brought his constituents immediate justice. And if a few bankers, the real criminals, ended up in jail, that wasn’t such a bad outcome, either.

His position was vintage Hinchey. He didn’t vary it to please any audience.

I wasn’t so sure that the fault for the unfolding economic disaster lay where he thought it did. Bernanke may have been slow on the uptake, I argued, but he knew what he was doing. There was no keener student of the American economic cycle. Sure, he was a Republican, but his ideological baggage didn’t seem to me by itself a sufficiently grievous fault to disqualify him from bold action.

Hinchey’s dark eyes flashed a couple of times in disdain for my gullibility. But he heard me out. I’m absolutely sure that whatever I said had no influence whatsoever on his views.

We had known each other a long time. Hinchey had displayed a refreshing if outspoken integrity when he ran unsuccessfully for Assembly in 1972. I, addled though my views might occasionally be, had established my credibility with him when Woodstock Times managed to survive. He liked its quixotic streak. We had something in common. As he did, we tilted at windmills.

It may sound aspirational and hopelessly idealistic to some, but for both of us, as for Don Quixote, the good struggle was all. There was no success higher than integrity — telling things the way one thinks they really are and through that effort mirroring the community of which one is part.

Maurice Hinchey was New York State’s leading legislative protector of the environment. What you’ll read about his support for the Department of Environmental Conservation, his role in the toxic Love Canal and the mob-controlled Al Turi landfill, the establishment of the Hudson River Greenway and the protection of the great river from GE’s contamination, his opposition to fracking, and his unwavering advocacy over the decades for the Catskill Interpretive Center is all true. He also passionately believed in civil rights, social equity and support for all the disadvantaged and discriminated against.

Hinchey finally unwillingly retired from Congress after barely surviving two operations for colon cancer. His five-year deterioration after that was slow and painful to watch. This year he was diagnosed as having a terminal neurological disorder called frontotemporal degeneration.

A couple of years ago I would see him sitting alone on many mornings at a small window table at Dominick’s Café on the corner of North Front and Wall streets in Kingston. I’d be on my way to my office around the corner.

We would catch each other’s eye. There’d be a glint of recognition. We’d wave to each other or signal through the glass whether the day was cold or warm, whether I was in a hurry or not. He’d give me a thumbs-up and smile.

Sometimes I’d go in and sit with him. He’d usually be cheerful but remote, a little guarded. We’d exchange fragments of stories, and I’d leave.

On all these occasions he never mentioned my name or referred to what I did. I didn’t probe why.

After a few months, he stopped coming.

Tumbling through my mind are lines from Finnegans Wake elliptically explaining how the ravages of age and infirmity eventually overcome even the most vital of us social creatures: “For all of these have been thisworlders, time liquescing into state, pitiless age grows angelhood.”

Maurice Hinchey kept it together with grace longer than most.

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