McNulty, one of the last class acts - The Explorer: Voices

McNulty, one of the last class acts

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Posted: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:21 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

What ever happened to Congressmen with a sense of humor? Arizona's current House delegation contains a rather dour lot. Any request to MC events comes from courtesy and respect for rank rather than entertainment value.

It wasn't always that way, here or elsewhere. Check the difference between Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi.

In the 1960s, Arizona had but three House members (we currently have eight). All three were genuinely funny men. John Jacob Rhodes (R) District One, Mesa; Morris King Udall (D), District Two, Tucson; and Sam NMI Steiger (R) District Three, Prescott. Udall and Steiger could have any crowd howling and neither used ghosts. Rhodes, minority leader from 1974 to his 1982 retirement after 30 years, was less flashy, but having spent an evening around him in California in the '70s, he could give Sam and his good friend Mo a run. Sam quit after five terms to run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1976, ending up a successful talk show host and ultimately mayor of Prescott. Mo, crippled by Parkinson's, retired after 30 years in 1992.

Arizona had one more who could hold his own bantering with that illustrious crowd, and whose Congressional career was all too brief — Jim McNulty (D) District Five, Bisbee.

Born in Boston in 1924, he got to Tucson and the UA after WWII service. There he met his wife of 59 years, Jackie, who came from an old ranching family and grew up with Sandy O'Connor. Jim practiced law in Bisbee, where he raised a family, served in the Arizona Senate, and ran for Congress in 1982, narrowly defeating Republican Jim Kolbe. Kolbe came back and beat him in 1984, and McNulty chose not to try again for that or any other elected office. He was too nice a guy to play the hardball politics currently requires.

Jim went back to practicing law in Tucson, did a hitch in the Peace Corps, and worked with many community organizations too numerous to mention. Unlike many other liberals, he walked the walk, too.

For a couple of seasons, the McNultys sat in front of us at Arizona Opera. During the Keating Five investigations, I leaned over and lamented the practice of moving opera plots into other centuries. I hit him with "did you hear about the new California version of Faust? He's an aging Democrat Senator and the Devil is a corrupt S & L CEO who buys him off for a date with Morgan Fairchild." Jim cracked up — the Democrat elected official with him barely smiled.

I did a couple radio interviews with him over the years. One highlight — one of his good friends during that one term in Congress was Bill Lipinski, from Chicago and suburban Cook County, also class of '82. I knew Lipinski by reputation from my Illinois consulting gigs and Jim entertained me and the audience with a run of Lipinski — and Rostenkowski — stories. Jim was a delightful story teller. The Lip and Rosti are also gone and with them, and Jim McNulty, a piece of American ethnic heritage.

While I shared Boston roots with him, not making it to California until fifth grade, I disagreed with Jim McNulty on most issues. He was a classic old-style liberal Democrat. More important, he believed it, he understood it, and he didn't back off from it. He won my respect, as did his wonderful wife Jackie, who so lovingly cared for him during his final illness. Jim died last week at 83.

Arizona was a better place when our pols were guys like John, Mo, Sam and Jim who were all class acts. It was definitely much more entertaining.

Hear Tom Danehy and Emil Franzi Saturdays 1-4 p.m. on KVOI 1030AM.

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