Conable passed away on Nov. 30, 2003, the day before Fleming finished his biography. Fifteen years in the making, Window on Congress, published by University of Rochester Press and due out this spring, is a poignant tribute to the former congressman and World Bank president.
Conable represented western New York as a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1985. Voted by his colleagues as the “most respected member” of the House of Representatives in 1984, Conable played a critical role in a number of issues, including the Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon; tax legislation passed during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations; and in solving the 1983 Social Security crisis.
Conable had just retired from Congress when Fleming first met him in the summer of 1985. At the urging of congressional scholars from the University of Rochester and Cornell University, Fleming became Conable’s biographer.
A prolific writer, Conable’s monthly newsletters and newspaper columns revealed to Fleming the congressman’s distinctive representational style.
“He wanted to be an educational link with his constituents on congressional activities,” says Fleming. “Conable was fond of writing his own newsletters because it helped him form his thoughts. He faithfully wrote his constituents once a month for 20 years.”
Conable’s reputation as a teacher extended to his colleagues, as well as to journalists and academics.
“His legacy is as a teacher-legislator,” Fleming says. “He tried to help others understand how the system worked. His constituents and others saw him essentially as a teacher. That’s the way he connected with people.”
A major breakthrough occurred for Fleming in 1994, when Conable gave him access to a private journal he kept during his congressional career. Conable read passages to Fleming and the RIT students who accompanied him on the interviews.
“Involving students in the research was one of the smartest things I did in writing the biography,” Fleming says. “I invited more than 30 of my best students to visit with me in Conable’s home, many of whom did independent study projects with me on Conable’s career. We would sit with him for hours listening to him read his journal and asking him questions about his congressional career. Students loved these sessions with Barber as much as he loved having them.”
RIT alumnus James Hutchings, ’03, remembers the time he spent with Conable.
“I met Mr. Conable only a few months before his death and was among the last students to make the trip to visit him,” Hutchings says. “He seemed to be just as interested in my views of politics and the world as I was in his.”
Alumna Laura Scarpelli, ’94, agrees. “I only met Mr. Conable once, however it had a tremendous affect on me and my learning experience. I saw our history through the eyes of someone who lived through it and had the opportunity to impact it.”
Hutchings adds, “The part that impressed me most was what I learned about a truly human element in American government. This was a life-building event for me and I am honored to have been able to meet such a great congressman, statesman and person.”
NOTE: On Wednesday, May 12, Fleming will be at Barnes and Noble Booksellers in Pittsford Plaza for a book discussion and signing. The event will start at 7 p.m.