This Side Up

Preview to a book


I followed former Congressman Eddie Beard out of the office to get a look at his license plate. It’s one of the state’s few emeritus plates and, after telling me about it and a lot more about this family and where he has been lately, I wanted to get a picture. What I got was another story from his days in Congress, one that will certainly be in his book that is now in the final stages of editing.

Gerald Ford was president and Eddie, at 35, was one of the youngest members of the House of Representatives. No question that he was the only member of the House who left a job of lifting ladders, scraping and wielding a paintbrush to work in the U.S. Congress.

In the early days of his first term, President Gerald Ford invited the Rhode Island delegation to the White House for a chat. The state’s senior senator, John Pastore, assumed command. In a car on their way to the White House, Pastore made it clear what he expected. He was going to do the talking.

Looking at Beard, Pastore said, “You don’t say anything.”

Beard was prepared to follow orders, but a question nagged at him.

“I asked Pastore, ‘What should I do if the president asks me something,’” recalls Beard.

Pastore repeated, “You say nothing.”

Beard didn’t think that would work, but he didn’t argue.

Sure enough, not long after being shown into the Oval Office, Ford looked at Beard and asked how it felt to be the new kid on the block. Beard was silent. The president didn’t know what to make of it. He pressed for an answer and finally Beard said he had been instructed to be silent. The president nodded. Toward the end of the meeting, Ford rose from his seat and asked Beard, alone, to join him and they walked outside.

“He told me not to look in the window at the others,” said Beard. Ford stopped and looked up at the walls of the White House and asked a question.

“He wanted to know if it was whitewash or paint,” said Beard.

Quite obviously Ford had done his homework. Beard licked his finger and ran it along the wall. He explained to Ford, if the residue was black, it was paint; if white, it was whitewash. It came back white.

Ford asked – facetiously, of course – if Beard wanted the job of whitewashing the White House. Beard didn’t give it a second thought. He told the president he would be much too busy representing the people of Rhode Island. Then Ford smiled and made Beard promise not to mention the subject of their talk to Pastore for at least three days, who would surely be quizzing him on what the president had to say.

The senator tried to worm the information out of Beard any way he could, including a call to his wife, and she didn’t know anything about it. When Beard finally told Pastore, the senator found the truth too incredible to believe.

Beard stood smiling as he finished the story.

I could see it. The president, a Washington insider, and Beard, a blue-collar painter who bumped off the establishment candidate; a seasoned politician and a newbie thumbing their noses at protocol and Senator Pastore. I had to laugh.

Beard stopped by my office on a different mission last week. He wanted to show me a copy of a story from the Mulberry Press (Fla.) featuring a picture of him and former Warwick resident Kevin J. McAteer. Beard had just returned from a couple of weeks with McAteer. The Florida paper gave him an extended write-up, relating how he was chairman of the Labor Standards Committee and the legislation he sponsored that lead to the content labeling on everything from shredded wheat to a can of Coke.

Beard said that all started when House Speaker Tip O’Neill asked him to find out what was in his cereal. Beard got back to his office and started making calls. One food company after the next told him that was none of his business, that it was “proprietary” information. That got him going.

Then Beard reminded me of the time he was snubbed by President Jimmy Carter, on the president’s visit to Rhode Island. While other members of the Congressional delegation got to ride in the president’s car from Green Airport to Providence, Beard didn’t. It made a big splash at the time.

“Carter was a very vindictive guy,” Beard explained. What rubbed Carter wrong was Beard’s assessment of his performance. The president wanted to know what Rhode Islanders thought and Beard gave him the unvarnished truth. As it turned out, it wasn’t the last time Beard gave the president a piece of his mind.

On the return to Washington, Carter invited the delegation to join him on Air Force One. Beard tagged along, but when Carter saw him he stopped.

“You take a commercial flight,’” he told me.

Out of the earshot of the others, Beard retorted, “You can take your plane and shove it.”

There were other stories about Pope Paul VI, and colorful characters like Congressman Claude Pepper that will certainly be in the book. And then he had some things to say that probably won’t be in the book.

He talked about his Parkinson’s and how the medication he takes can make him emotional. At one point he broke down into tears.

“God has a plan for all of us,” he said.

He took pride in telling me about his daughter, Diane Brennan, the executive secretary to a senior vice president at Citizens Bank and his son, Edward, who, since he was a child, has been an artist.

“He has outdone me worldwide,” he said, describing how his son’s shows in Germany and Japan have attracted thousands. Three of Edward’s paintings are in the Vatican, Beard said.

“I’ll leave a fairly decent legacy for my children and grandchildren,” he said.

Was this an observation or a farewell?

I wasn’t going to ask.

And then he came back to the license plate. He wanted to know if we had carried a story about it because, on returning from Florida, there had been a report about special plates and how he was one of the few to have one. The Providence Journal, not the Beacon, did the story.

Beard wanted me to know that, while entitled to free registration, he has insisted on paying all these years. I suspected that was the reason for his visit. He wanted the truth known.

What I learned was far more. It’s no fluke Eddie was elected, as some of us thought back then. Not only can he relate to people, but he knows what’s right.


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