Harrison A. Williams Jr., R.I.P.

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Join me, my friends, in a moment of silence to honor the memory of former U.S. Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), who departed this vale of tears on Nov. 17, 2001, at the age of 81.

Harrison Williams may be regarded as having been an outstanding member of what is sometimes hilariously called the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. (Barry Goldwater once ‘remarked, “If this is the world’s greatest deliberative body, I’d hate the see the world’s worst.”) Williams was first elected to that august legislative chamber in 1958 and served there continuously from 1959 until 1982, when he resigned in the wake of his conviction on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy and in anticipation of his impending expulsion.

“Pete,” as he was known, met his Waterloo in the form. of “Abscam,” an FBI sting operation (1978–80) that undertook to shoot fish in a barrel by identifying members of Congress willing to accept bribes – the illegal kind, not the ones that all legislators take as a matter of course. Abscam, as older readers will recall, took its moniker from “Abdul Enterprises,” a firm supposedly doing business on behalf of a mysterious Arab sheik named Abdul, which was created by the FBI to facilitate the enticement of lawmakers eager to collect a little extra compensation on the sly.

I shall never forget the joie de vivre that animated Pete Williams in those good old days. It was captured for all time on ·the FBI videotape, which was later described ··by the Senate’s pro-expulsion statement (recorded by the Republican Policy Committee) as “the ‘smoking gun’ of·this case – indeed, a ‘smoking machine gun.'” While pocketing the loot, a smirking Williams exultantly declared (if. my memory serves) the immortal words, “Money talks, bullshU walks.” I count that moment among my most cherished lessons in political science.

Following his 1981 conviction, Williams dodged the jailer for a few years until his delaying tactics finally petered out. He then spent two years in prison, and was released in 1986. He continued to protest his innocence. “I broke no laws,” he always insisted. “I believe time, history and almighty God will vindicate me,” he declared in his· resignation speech. As Bill Clinton was engaging in his end-game frenzy of issuing pardons, Williams sought a pardon, but the President gave him no satisfaction.

Mike McCurry, the Clinton press secretary, was once an aide to Williams, and he remembered the senator with warm respect. “Pete Williams was one of those guys who got more done than anybody will ever know,” said McCurry, “because he was a quiet, behind-the-scenes orchestrator of legislation. ”

Well, Mike, you don’t have to twist my arm to make me believe that Pete Williams got more done· than anybody will ever know. Even if we must judge him by what we do know, however, he will stand in the annals of American democracy as a lion of the legislature, a thief among thieves.

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