"See that guy at the bar?" I told a group of friends gathered in 1981 at Bullfeather's, a popular watering hole on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., "That's Congressman Bill Carney, from New York. Let me introduce you."
As a somewhat immature young reporter wanting to show off the important people I knew, I called out, "Hi, Congressman. Come meet my friends."
In his distinct New York accent, Carney replied: "I'm not a congressman! Who are you trying to kid?"
This unexpected retort sent my friends into fits of laughter. In giving me an early lesson in humility, Carney also got a good chuckle out of the situation — as he did so frequently during his years in Congress from 1978 to 1986.
When I learned that Bill Carney died at age 74 on May 23, this was one of many memories from the years I covered him.
With his noticeable Brooklyn accent and puckish sense of humor, Carney was cut from the same cloth as the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, actor James Cagney and Donald Trump — a "street kid" from the City, whose winks and wisecracks connected him to ordinary folks.
After briefly attending Florida State University, the young Carney served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1961 to '65. He married childhood sweetheart Barbara in 1966, settled in eastern Long Island and became a heavy equipment salesman.
An active member of New York's Conservative Party in its infancy, Carney was elected on the Conservative ballot line to the Suffolk County Legislature in 1976. Two years later, when Rep. Otis Pike (D-NY) retired after eighteen years, the Republican Party leaders in the 1st District agreed to give their backing to Carney for Congress, even though he was a registered Conservative.
"I will absolutely not change my enrollment," Carney told reporters, "I believe the distinction of being an enrolled Conservative will prove to be an advantage in the long run."
Empire State election law permitted candidates to run on multiple ballot lines and have their aggregate totals counted for one candidate. Carney rolled up 57 percent of the vote in his first general election and, for eight years, he was "Rep. Carney (C.-R.-NY)" and, at the time, the lone member of Congress who was neither Republican nor Democrat.
The Long Islander inarguably voted to the right of his constituency. He backed President Reagan's tax and budget cuts in 1981 and was unabashedly pro-life. House Armed Services Committee Member Carney sponsored an amendment in 1982 calling for a reduction in strategic arms and then a freeze on nuclear weapons. Reagan mentioned the "Carney Amendment" and its author in a nationally televised press conference and the measure passed the House.
"I don't worry about being 'too conservative' because I go home and listen to Joe Lunchbox," he told me at the time, "We can pass a conservative agenda, but we've got to hear Joe out and talk to him."
In 1986, however, Carney went too far. As local opposition to a proposed nuclear plant in Suffolk County was growing rapidly, the congressman said he favored it as the best means of supplying his constituents with affordable power. Community leaders and most constituents saw the issue differently, and Carney decided to call it quits.
"I faced a crisis of conscience which placed my commitment to do what I know in my heart to be right against pursuing the path of least political resistance to save my political career," Carney had said at the time, explaining why he chose not to run again.
Carney spent his remaining years in Washington as a successful government relations consultant. The last time I saw him was in April of last year, when he came to the annual banquet of the Former Members of Congress Association accompanied by daughter Jackie.
Spotting the Carneys, I gathered my wife and former Rep. Jim Courter (R.-N.J.), who came to Congress with Carney in 1978, and began telling a story of one of the New Yorker's pranks.
"I know you," he said, interrupting me, "but I can't remember what you’re talking about. They say I've got that me — what do you call it? — dementia."
Bill Carney didn't need to remember any specifics. As Courter and others assured him that night, we remembered him vividly. And we loved him.
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