Friends for Life, But Then Life Ends


“Who were these guys?” I thought. “And what were they doing here?”

It was a cold January day in 1977, the second of January to be exact. The two other guys were sitting in overstuffed leather chairs in Room 2112 in the Rayburn House Office building just across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

The three of us were meeting for the first time. We were brought together as part of the new leadership staff of the freshly minted Republican Whip in the House, Bob Michel of Illinois. We were all recruited by Michel’s chief of staff, Ralph Vinovich, who cut his political teeth on the staff of the venerable Senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen. At the time, Michel represented the changing of the guard in Republican leadership. It was, yet again, time for new beginnings, for all of us.

We would become great, enduring friends to the end, Bob and Ralph, a New Jersey fella named Bill Gavin, a born and bred DC native named Billy Pitts, and me.

The end came for Ralph, our mentor and compatriot, in 2009, the victim of a lymphoma that wouldn’t take no for an answer. He beat it once but succumbed on its return.

Yesterday, Gavin lost his battle against another cancer, an aggressive, mean, ugly bastard that attacked his gall bladder first and then consumed the rest of him. Bill had major surgery when his cancer was discovered. He went through physical therapy, worked hard to recover and did. He was back out on the streets in May. Then, a couple of weeks ago, it came back, like Ralph’s.   Just when you think you’re a survivor, the nasty little cells return, fiercer, meaner than ever.    That’s why oncologists never say you are “cancer free,” because you never are.

So there we were, 38 years ago, embarking on a political odyssey with no clue about what an adventure it would be, personally or professionally, traveling with Michel, who, as it turns out with 20-20 hindsight, was a great leader, but more importantly, a real hero and to this day a remarkable human being. He was what politics needed then and maybe needs now.

Bill Gavin was the thinker, the author of Street Corner Conservative, a book that capsulated conservative thinking so well it caught the attention of presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Nixon hired Gavin away from his teaching job in Philadelphia and teamed him with some of the best Presidential speechwriters ever to occupy the White House, the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ray Price, and William Safire. Gavin was an inspired writer, but he was also a philosopher and true intellectual. He could crystallize and synthesize political thought better than anyone I’ve ever known.

As a writer, Bill could put into eloquent words what Michel believed in his heart, and he could give perspective and clarity to what Michel did or wanted to do. As an intellectual, he was able to give context and meaning to the issues with which we were confronted and frame them in such a way there was less room for doubt within us or division among us.

He also had profound insight into human relationships and political behavior. One meeting I remember in the Capitol office with leaders from the Illinois and Peoria NAACP that serves as an example.

There was intense back and forth over an issue – I don’t remember the nature of it – and well into the exchange, Gavin, in a very rare interruption, said in very diplomatic terms that the meeting should end. He said something to the effect, of  ‘regrettably gentlemen we can reach no conclusion here because underlying the discussion is a lack of trust in each others’ motivation. If one does not trust the motivation of the other, there can be no amicable conclusion to any conversation. Better to talk when both sides believe the other is doing what they believe to be right.’

Gavin was an intellectual lighthouse throughout his career with Michel, a time when conservatism was in serious transformation and the great traditions of republican governance were being challenged every day. He had an intellectual anchor bigger than the Queen Mary’s, so he was never adrift in the backwash of the mindless and bombastic derivations of conservatism by convenience. His conservatism was pure, his common sense impenetrable, and his wealth of knowledge and the richness of his experiences simply unmatched.

The downside was Gavin rarely spoke. He was mostly a quiet man, humble and reserved.

Here is an excerpt from a piece he did just this year for, reflecting with humor and pristine logic on political argument:

I once read that Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, said: “It is a curious thing but true that in all important decisions I made in my life, I have never been wrong.”

While my record is not quite as unblemished as that of Lord Mountbatten, I can at least lay claim to one accomplishment: after decades in politics, I have never been argued out of a strongly-held political position or belief and I also have never changed anyone’s mind about politics on the basis of an argument I have made.

It would seem I am not only impervious to reasoned argument but incapable of sustaining one myself. No doubt there’s more truth in such a view than I am prepared to admit, but it doesn’t explain everything. I believe most people who care passionately about politics share a similar history… A well-crafted political argument, combining relevant facts, consistent logic, “gotcha!” moments and deeply held views, can be entertaining, exhilarating, and in some cases enlightening. But whether the debate takes place between presidential candidates or in the local barroom, when the last argument has been made, and it is time to go home, has anyone’s mind been changed? 

In the other chair that day 38 years ago was Pitts, the doer. Although a thinker as well, Billy was already a “man of the House,” a product of the institution, the son of a 40-year veteran of leadership staff and himself, a page, a cloakroom attendant, a floor specialist, and a master of parliamentary procedures. Pitts had worked with House Minority Leader John Rhodes when Michel hired him. Pitts had so much skill he could assemble the pieces of a complex public policy puzzle into an ingenious porridge with all of the essential ingredients of politics, policy, perception, and procedure, so it was never too hot, never too cold. He could do that while the rest of us were still trying to define the problem. There is still no one better.

I was the cosmetologist, Michel’s first full-time “press assistant.” Yes, it was a long time ago when the politics of perception was still, compared to today, in its infancy.

The friendship we had was shared among many others in the Michel clan. We were a few among many. And for the most part, all of us have stayed close.

There are a lot of elements to great friendships–trust, humor, values, intimacy, a blend of commonality and diversity, generational familiarity, mutual respect, intellectual curiosity, and, in our case, an appreciation for and an engagement in politics and public policy. We shared those things and our mutual respect and loyalty to the Leader.

The place was loaded with talent, Haas, Schneider, Kehl, McMurray, Hanley, Tessier, Yard, Davis, Bailey, DeBoer, Liesman, Feehery, so many others, including, of course, LaHood, the other guy from Peoria, who replaced me as chief of staff and then went on to some other jobs in government. I understand he’s writing a book. I am sure it will be a great read, as they say in the book biz, but truthfully, it would be hard to beat those penned by Gavin, particularly his two novels, “One Hell of a Candidate,” and ”The ErnestoChe’ Guevera School for Wayward Girls.” They sizzled and who’da thunk it, from Gavin, the quiet, reserved, devout Catholic, devoted family man, loving husband to ever-tolerant Kathy and father of three terrific children.

Growing old has its good sides and bad. It is wonderful exacting revenge on your children by spoiling your grandchildren. It is wonderful discovering that you’re not as dumb as you thought you were or millennials make you out to be. It is wonderful being able to profit from the wisdom you have accumulated over so many years and being liberated from the theatrics of professional and social life in the District of Columbia. It is wonderful being honest with yourself and finally comfortable in your own pale, wrinkled, sagging skin.

It is discouraging not being able to keep up with younger, more vibrant generations and their relative ease with technological advancement. It is discouraging dealing with physical and mental infirmities like memory lapses and hearing loss. It is unnerving confronting your own mortality. But that is manageable.

What is hard and so sad about growing old is losing people like Gavin and Vinovich. They are immortal of course, because they will live forever in cherished memories that are recalled every day, sometimes with a tear, sometimes with a smile. But physically they are gone for the duration. We can’t call them or see them or talk with them anymore. We can’t ask them questions we forgot to ask when they were with us on earth and we can’t tell them face-to-face how much they mean to us.

We all have Gavins and Vinoviches in our lives and in our memories. There is evidence of it every day on the social Internet. This is about Gavin, but also so many souls who have gone before. Their departure should be a constant tutorial in how we live and how we love before we have to say goodbye.

This is all about what we see as the mysteries of life and death as well as their realities. Unfortunately, what we know is a pittance. We only guess. We only believe. We can have faith that Gavin’s soul is in a better place than his body was in his final days on earth. I believe that. I hope that for my friend, Bill.

What I know, too, is that my life and hopefully, the lives of those with whom I am close, especially my wife and children, have been made so much richer, so much more complete, so much more fulfilling, by the Gavins we have known. I hope he understood that before he left. I tried to tell him.

What better way to slip off the mortal coil than knowing you made a difference to someone; that you changed the course of the human experience, if just for one person, just one time, in just one little way. He did.

When I learned of Bill’s death yesterday, maybe by accident, maybe by providence, I was looking into the eyes of my granddaughter, her picture proudly displayed on my desk. I cried. But they were tears of joy as well as sorrow. Because as life ends, life begins.

Thanks, Bill.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.