Pat Schroeder was a tad short of trainable

Editor’s note: Sue O’Brien, The Denver Post editorial page editor from 1995 until her death from cancer in August 2003, wrote this column on Dec. 3, 1995, on the occasion of Rep. Pat Schroeder’s announcement that she was not seeking a 13th term in the U.S. House.

I cringed when Pat Schroeder handed out Easter eggs in that bunny suit on the Great Wall of China.

I wanted to wash out her mouth with soap the first time she confided to a waiting world that she had private parts. (Q. “How, Mrs. Schroeder, do you manage being both a mother and a congresswoman?” A: “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use them both.”)

I loved it when her first Christmas card from Washington said, “Both Jim and I need a wife.” But I worried when the one-liner got her in trouble with more orthodox feminists.

That’s it. Orthodox.

Through all those early years I kept wishing that Pat Schroeder would be just a little more orthodox.

Not because I needed a role model. She’s a year younger than I am. (“Role model,” says Schroeder, “is the purgatory that cultural pioneers must endure before they pass into the heavenly state of being accepted for who they are.”) I wanted her to stay out of trouble, because I liked her and had great hopes invested in her and really wanted her to succeed.

And I believed that no one could survive in American politics — let alone succeed — if they strayed too far from the way we were told all nice girls behaved. Both Schroeder and I were brought up in Iowa. We know how nice girls are supposed to behave.

I didn’t have to wait until 1995, and her announcement that she won’t run for a 13th term in Washington, to find out she’s “always been hard to paper-train.” I knew it from the start.

There were some folks who thought she was trainable, though, back at the beginning. You could almost say the key to her initial success was a false impression.

Out of the mists of myth rises the story of the anti-war Democrats who gathered in a Capitol Hill living room in 1971 to figure out how to recapture Denver’s 1st Congressional District seat. It had been lost to Republican Mike McKevitt in 1970 after a fratricidal Democratic primary pitted challenger Craig Barnes, a Vietnam dove, against incumbent Byron Rogers. Barnes won the primary but lost the general election to McKevitt, then the Denver district attorney.

As the 1972 election approached, only one challenger to McKevitt appeared likely to enter the race: Vietnam War defender Arch Decker, then a Democratic state legislator, though he later became a Republican. “We needed a young liberal, but one who wouldn’t split the party,” one participant in that meeting remembers. “We decided it was time for a woman.”

They weren’t exactly counting on Schroeder to be a healer, he admits. “All we knew was that, to avoid divisiveness, we needed a liberal the conservatives would have trouble opposing — a young woman, a mother.”

Pat Schroeder wasn’t at that meeting, but her husband, Jim, was — fresh from his own unsuccessful 1970 bid for a seat in the Colorado Legislature. He carried the group’s message home and, the story goes, talked his wife into running.

The rest, as they say, is history. Except that the charming young mother with the subdued Ivy League skirts and sweaters, bouncing ponytail and peaches-and-cream complexion soon had accumulated 10 times more conservative critics than any man in her shoes might have amassed.

You almost get the feeling sometimes that Pat Schroeder is the liberal conservatives love to hate — that her crustier critics can’t get the carbon out of their engines in the morning if they don’t have a flippant quote from Schroeder to rev ’em up.

(The saddest part of my day Wednesday was calling my colleague, Al Knight. “Al,” I said, “I hate to be the one to break this to you, but your muse may never sing again. Pat Schroeder is retiring.”)

I understand in my head what makes them so mad. I guess I even understand why the dislike can sometimes be so visceral. She’s sassy, a smart aleck. She never talks dirty, but she’s not afraid to call a uterus a uterus. She doesn’t pull punches. She’s not feminine in the classic sense of ladylike.

But she’s just as easy to like as to dislike. Her role models, I’d guess, are the pioneer women of the Midwest and West — women who didn’t put on airs but rolled up their sleeves and made things work.

She is frugal. Ask the National Taxpayers Union.

She is plain-spoken. Schroeder would never say “ain’t,” but “wanna,” “gonna” and “oughta” are echoes of Iowa. She uses homely analogy instead of high-flown metaphor. Criticizing Congress for being unable to say no to spending bills, for instance, she said: “If you guys were women, you’d all be pregnant.”

It boils down to relentlessly being herself.

“That’s the only way I know how to do it,” Schroeder says; “Schroeder is a rhetorical roughneck,” George Will says.

You gotta (there’s Iowa again) love her or hate her.

It’s been a hell of a gig.

Sue O’Brien, who once served as Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm’s press secretary and managed Roy Romer’s first gubernatorial campaign, was an associate dean and professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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