"How ya doing?" former Rep. Lester Wolff, D.-NY, exclaimed to Newsmax outside the celebrated Morton’s steakhouse in Washington D.C. in 2018.
Out of office for 39 years, the former congressman was delighted to be recognized and immediately launched a discourse on how his old-style liberal politics helped spell his defeat in 1980. Finally, son Bruce Wolff smiled, tugged at his father’s sleave and gently reminded him he had a lunch date.
The elder Wolff was 99 at the time.
When news of his death at 102 became public Thursday morning, the memory vividly returned of someone who kept going strong — writing books, speaking, remaining active in groups ranging from the Former Members of Congress Association to his beloved Civil Air Patrol, and taking to Twitter ("Donald Trump thinks mysogyny is the winner of a beauty contest").
Born in Manhattan and a graduate of New York University, Wolff joined the Civil Air Patrol in World War II and served as a subchaser. He also began his life-long love affair with the printed and spoken word, beginning as a reporter for the Long Island News and Bronx Home News.
In the 1950s, Wolff made a leap into the infant industry of television. His walrus mustache and horn-rimmed glasses became familiar during his years as host of "Between the Lines," in which he interviewed controversial figures such as civil rights leader Malcolm X and Empire State politicians of all stripes.
In 1962, asked by Wolff about corruption in the New York City police department, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., D-N.Y., replied that many police officers were "on the take" and that a domestic named Esther James was a "bag lady" for the corrupt lawmen. This led to years of protracted litigation between Powell and James.
In 1964, with widespread name recognition from his TV show and help from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s long coattails, Wolff (who had recently switched from Republican to Democrat) eked out an upset (3,000 votes) over six-term Republican Rep. Steven B. Derounian.
Wolff was an unabashed supporter of Johnson’s Great Society, and voted for every part of his big-spending agenda — from the "War on Poverty to the National Endowment of the Arts. He also passionately backed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
The Long Island lawmaker was also known as a strong backer of Israel. He was a leader among Democrats in standing by Taiwan after President Jimmy Carter switched U.S. recognition to the Communist mainland. Wolff played a key role in crafting the Taiwan Relations Act of 1978, which pledges U.S. military support to the island-nation if it was attacked.
Following an even-closer contest with Derounian (who had beaten future CIA Director William Casey in the primary) in 1966, Wolff would survive Republican challenges with ease every two years.
But in 1980, he faced a different type of opponent — 27-year-old John LeBoutillier, author of "Harvard Hates America," who knew how to campaign hard and mobilize young volunteers. With hard-hitting TV salvos slamming Wolff for "junketeering" abroad on the taxpayer’s dime, LeBoutillier pulled off one of the major upsets in the year of Ronald Reagan’s election as president.
Lester Wolff was in many ways a politician of a bygone era. To those who loved history and politics, the former congressman was an ambassador from that era who brought the past to life — and delighted those who talked to him.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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