A tribute to Peter Rodino and ‘We the People’
By Mark DiIonno
Reporter, The Star-Ledger
Photo by Jennifer Brown
June 27, 2009
It took a committee of five Founding Fathers six days to perfect the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
It took Peter Rodino a lifetime to dissect it, study it, relish it, and uphold the tenets of it.
Joy Rodino, who wrote a book about her husband and the Constitution, is the widow of Congressman Rodino, who ran the Nixon investigations. She holds a copy of TIME magazine with him on the cover from August 5, 1974.
The story is told in a new book by the late Congressman’s wife. “Fifty-two words My Husband Taught Me,” is Joy Rodino’s tribute to her husband’s career and love of country. It is also a book for these times, and this time of year.
Independence Day should be a time of reflection on what America should stand for, and the long taken-for-granted answers are in our first documents: The Declaration of Independence, The United States Constitution and its subsequent Bill of Rights.
“Given the troubled times we’re living in, with all the stories of greed and corruption and the problems with the economy, I think people are searching for more meaning,” Joy Rodino said. “It’s perfect time for us to remember the ideals of our founding fathers and the foundation of this country.”
Peter Rodino, who died on May 7, 2005, just a month before his 96th birthday, built a life around those ideals, and they were put to the test during the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon.
As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he led the hearings that led to the resignation of Nixon. In that bitterly partisan atmosphere, Rodino was seen as calmly moderate, more intent on applying Constitutional Law than conducting a political assassination.
In her apartment on the first ridge of the Watchungs, overlooking Newark, where her husband was born, and the surrounding towns he represented for 40 years in Congress, Joy Rodino keeps the magazines of the day, Peter Rodino, the son of Italian immigrants, was on the cover of “Time” and “Newsweek,” as the central figure in a national political crisis.
“I think that may have been the finest moment for our Constitution in our history,” said Joy Rodino, who was married to Rodino for 16 years before his death. “It truly proved everyone, even the president was accountable to ‘We, the People.’ It proved nobody, not even the president, was above the law.”
Peter Rodino’s American beginnings made the moment especially poignant. He was not a member of an entrenched political family or from a privileged class. His parents spoke little English. He graduated from Barringer High. He fought in World War II. He graduated from the University of Newark, and Newark Law School, which later were both later absorbed by Rutgers. He married his first wife, Marianna Stango Rodino, in 1941, and stayed with her untl her death in 1980. If there ever was a ‘We, the People,’ it was Peter Rodino.
“He was really a self-made man. He grew up in a tenement across from Branch Brook Park. He was 4 when his mother died,” said Joy Rodino. “But there was such an appreciation of what this country offered, that he grew up with a sense that he should somehow serve the country. He was brought up with a sense of public service.”
She spoke about Rodino’s hard work to command the language, and oratory skills. “The story of him speaking (alone) in Branch Brook Park with pebbles in his mouth (like the Greek orator Demosthenes) were legendary,” she said.
From those beginnings, Rodino became an important figure during some of America’s most turbulent times. He was at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s shoulder, and right next to Martin Luther King, during the signing of the historic Civil Rights legislation of July 2, 1964. The four decades he served in Congress, from 1949 to 1989, were dominated by the Cold War and political upheaval at home. Still, Rodino never strayed from the guiding principles.
The book is broken into chapters, each headed by a clause of the Preamble. The book is a mixture of biographical stories – like the time, as a teenager, a Newark police officer broke his nose with a nightstick for no apparent reason – and how those life lessons shaped his legislative might. But there are also pages of Rodino’s thoughts and writings about his reverence for the Preamble, the men who wrote it, and how those words applied to his life in Washington, and how they it apply to our lives today.
It is a 52-word sentence in which every word represents a high ideal of human rights and dignity. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, William Samuel Johnson and Rufus King spent five days perfecting it. Peter Rodino spent 40 years in Washington upholding it, and a lifetime honoring it. They are the words on which this nation’s laws were built and endured. They are words to be taken seriously, and not for granted. And here they are:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Our posterity. Something to think about.