THE BLOG
05/26/2010 05:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Roger Goodell is the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL). This Saturday he will be the commencement speaker at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UMass Lowell).

The story of how that happened is a story of how one politician rose above the perceived and often justified cynicism about his profession, to honor a man he had never met and about whom he had no clue.

The story began one Sunday afternoon in 1997 at a Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins game in our nation's capital. Roger Goodell, an assistant to then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue introduced himself to a guest of the commission, Congressman Marty Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts, an avid pro football fan.

They exchanged pleasantries and Goodell walked away. When he did Meehan's wife, Ellen, said to her husband, "Marty, you have no idea who he is, do you?" Not really", he said. "He's Charles Goodell's son", she said. "Who's Charles Goodell?" he asked.

Ellen Meehan told her husband she was surprised by his ignorance, since Goodell had replaced Robert F. Kennedy in the Senate after Bobby's assassination. "You always loved Bobby Kennedy. You even named our first son, Robert Francis Meehan, after Bobby. You should know Roger Goodell's father."

Marty Meehan heeded his wife's admonition. He resolved the next time Charles Goodell's name was mentioned, he would know who he was. In truth the likelihood of that happening with any frequency were remote. When Charles Goodell's name comes up now it is in almost always in reference to his famous son.

What possible relevance, therefore, could Charles Goodell have for Marty Meehan? Why would it matter? Meehan was only three when Goodell was elected in 1959 to New York's 43rd Congressional District, and by the time Meehan himself was elected in 1992 to represent Massachusetts' 5th District in Congress, Goodell had been dead five years.

But in this instance political relevance didn't matter to Meehan. The question his wife asked would prompt him to learn of Goodell - and learn he did.

Congressman Meehan's research convinced him that Charles Goodell had written a courageous chapter in the annals of American politics. But such stories often have a very short shelf life - as Goodell's certainly did.

Charles E. Goodell was born in Jamestown, New York. He graduated Summa cum Laude from Williams College, Yale Law, and Yale's Graduate School of Government. During World War II he served in the Navy and later as a Judge Advocate General with the Air Force in Korea. Before starting his own political career Goodell served in Washington as a Congressional liaison for the Department of Justice.

As a young Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, Goodell quickly impressed colleagues with his intellect and ability. He became a key leader in the successful effort to overthrow Indiana's Charles Halleck as minority leader in favor of Gerald Ford of Michigan (something Ford would remember as president when he named Goodell to chair the United States Clemency Commission following the Vietnam War).

While a fiscal conservative, Goodell took strong positions on issues of social justice, supporting the 1960 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1966 Equal Employment Act, and the 1967 extension of the Civil Rights Commission.

In the House he was the only Republican member of the Education and Labor Committee to vote for extending the National Defense Education Act. And, most remarkably, proposed the original Head Start program, which became law in 1965.

Goodell was the leading sponsor of the Election Reform Act of 1966, which called for a system of campaign finance disclosure, monitored and enforced by a bipartisan Federal Election Commission. His legislation was ahead of its time (McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan would happen 36 years later).

Upon his appointment to the Senate by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in September of 1968, Goodell was clearly conscious he occupied the seat that had belonged to Robert F. Kennedy, and he was ever mindful of Bobby's legacy. But Goodell proceeded to establish his own extraordinary record; a record that at its core underscored his political courage and exceptional personal decency. He wasn't Bobby Kennedy, and he knew it. Nor did he try to be like Bobby Kennedy, for there was only one. But Goodell's record in the Senate was consistent with Bobby's own concerns and commitments.

Coming to the Senate Goodell had supported the Vietnam War, but as the toll of broken lives and dead bodies mounted in Southeast Asia, and as the divisions over the war fractured American life at home, he realized he had been wrong in his support of the war and vowed to oppose it. It was a transforming moment in his life, politically and personally, but despite intense political pressure to back down, he refused, even though he knew the political cost might be great - as indeed it was.

In September 1969, Goodell introduced S. 3000, the Vietnam Disengagement Act, the first bill in United States Senate history to legislate an end to a war by ending its funding (a copy of the bill has a prominent place in Roger Goodell's NFL office in New York).

By this act, and by many others, Goodell would earn the enmity of Richard Nixon, and the president, his vice president, Spiro Agnew (who would leave the office in disgrace), and the Republican leader of the Senate, Everitt Dirksen of Illinois (the sometimes senator from AMA), took measures to end Goodell's political career - as end it they did.

In 1970 Goodell was opposed in the New York Senate race by Democrat Dick Ottinger and the Conservative Party's Jim Buckley. Goodell, despite the endorsements of both the Republican and Liberal parties ("Republican" and "Liberal" is not a misprint, that's how much our politics have changed) lost his Senate seat, as he and Ottinger divided the moderate and progressive vote, enabling Buckley to win.

America celebrates winners and Goodell had lost and was out of politics and gone from government. He was a loser and losers are quickly forgotten. But Charles Goodell accomplished more in his two and half years in the Senate than many senators accomplish in two terms.

This is the record Marty Meehan came to know and Charles Goodell is the man he came greatly to admire.

Which is why the late senator will receive posthumously a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree this Saturday, a degree unanimously approved by the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees. Presenting the degree will be the former politician and now chancellor of UMass Lowell, Marty Meehan - the man who did indeed rise above the perceived cynicism of his profession to bestow an honor that is singular in its recognition and remarkable in its decency.

Accepting the degree in his father's name will be Roger Goodell and his four brothers, Bill, Tim, Michael, and Jeffrey. They will be joined at the ceremony by their families - as Charles Goodell is finally, and justly, honored.

But this event, greatly anticipated by those privileged to have worked for Senator Goodell, would not have happened but for a wife's loving word to her husband, and his willingness to respond to her challenge.

Charles Goodell left the United States Senate 40 years ago. He has been dead 23 years. In conversations about politicians who displayed notable political daring, his name is seldom invoked. Such is the fate of "losers" in our harsh and unforgiving political environment.

But know this, and know this well, Charles Goodell wrote his own profile in courage - and neither the vacuous state of our politics nor the vicissitudes of American history can deny him in death what he achieved in life.

Which makes all the more meaningful the event that will unfold at UMass Lowell, when Marty Meehan disproves a widely held belief about politicians, that's it's always about them?

No it's not.