Former Congressman Amory Houghton Jr. (R-NY) died on March 4 at age 93. “Amo,” as he was known to one and all, was first elected to Congress in 1986 as a representative from upstate New York and retired in 2005, after nine terms in office. Prior to serving in Congress he had been CEO of the Corning Glass Works, the company now known as Corning, Inc., which in the 1870s created the incandescent lamp envelopes for Thomas Edison’s light bulbs and now makes the glass screens in iPhones and iPads. Amo is still the only CEO of a Fortune 500 company who went on to serve in Congress. This isn’t the place to relate all the personal qualities that made Amo such an extraordinary human being, but perhaps it’s appropriate to examine the political qualities that made him an exemplary moderate Republican.
Amo was a Republican partly out of family tradition. His father served as President Dwight Eisenhower’s ambassador to France, and his grandfather was a progressive Republican member of the U.S. House and ambassador to Germany and Great Britain under presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.
Amo was a loyal Republican for nearly 80 years; he had vivid memories of campaigning for Wendell Willkie in 1940. He believed that the Republican Party, at its core, stood for the national interest and the God-given freedom of every individual — the legacy, as he saw it, of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who had preserved the Union and freed the slaves. He also believed that the Lincoln tradition entailed what he called “an unshakeable dedication to civil rights and civil liberties.” He believed in what Theodore Roosevelt had called “equality of opportunity for all citizens,” and he was proud that his grandfather, while in Congress, had voted in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage.
Moderate Republicanism was the political outlook of much of the American upper class in the middle decades of the twentieth century, which has led some critics to dismiss it as merely country-club Republicanism. To a certain extent Amo fit that profile: he was a well-heeled Episcopalian from a prominent family who attended the St. Paul’s School and Harvard. But he wore his family background lightly, and he didn’t conform to anyone’s stereotype.
Amo was deeply rooted in the little town of Corning, New York, where his great-grandfather had moved in 1868 to set up the Glass Works. It has a population of a little more than 10,000 and is located in that part of southern and western New York known as the Southern Tier. Corning Inc. is the biggest U.S. corporation to retain its headquarters in such a small and comparatively isolated town. The Houghton family resisted all pressures to relocate the company to Manhattan or some other internationally connected metropolitan area. “Keeping the company in Corning,” according to Amo, “was something that was always important to us. That sense of place and loyalty and tradition couldn’t be duplicated elsewhere. There was also a very strong relationship between the management and the blue-collar workers. There really was a sense of everyone being a part of the same family.”
Critics tend to scoff at such attitudes, which they see as corporate paternalism, but Amo was remarkably down-to-earth for a rich businessman. He was proud to have served in the Marine Corps in World War II and appreciated the democratizing experience of that great collective struggle. “I got to know men from every section of the country,” he remembered, “and I came to have enormous respect for their courage, endurance, good humor, and essential decency. … That experience of bonding with Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds ultimately was one of the reasons I was able to succeed as a politician.”
As CEO, Amo ate in the company cafeteria and drove around town in an old Volkswagen. He lived in a house that was solid rather than grand. He didn’t want to live in the baronial estate built by his grandfather, he said, because “It wasn’t my style, a mansion on a hill looking down on the town. It would have embarrassed me. I don’t like to toot my own horn.” He took a salary cut at one point so that the ratio of his salary, relative to a janitor’s in one of the company’s factories, would remain at 25:1. The ballooning of CEO salaries in recent times struck him as immoral and dangerous: “That’s the sort of thing that ultimately leads to revolutions if you’re not careful.”
As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel charged with overseeing taxes, health care, Social Security, and trade, Amo took care to ensure that the needs and perspectives of ordinary workers were included in the committee’s deliberations. His colleague Rep. Jim Walsh (R-NY) observed that “For a big-business guy, [Amo] was very sensitive about small business. He wanted tax legislation to benefit the average guy on the street.”
Amo felt that “growing up in Corning helped make me a moderate, because it was a microcosm of the United States.” The Glass Works employed scientists and engineers as well as blue-collar workers, and the area included farms, factories, laboratories, small businesses, and universities. “Dealing with such a broad cross-section of people and businesses,” according to Amo, “gave you a feeling of practicality. There were no ideological divisions in Corning, no culture wars or anything like that.”
Corning was largely insulated from the violent upheavals of the late 1960s, but the great social movements of the age were felt in town, just as they had been in previous eras when Corning was an important station on the Underground Railroad and a center of women’s suffrage activism. As CEO of the Glass Works, Amo initiated the company’s first efforts in minority hiring, and Corning was among the earliest American companies to sponsor a day-care center as a means of recruiting and promoting more women employees.
Twentieth-century moderate Republicans generally were socially tolerant but business-friendly fiscal conservatives, and that certainly described Amo. “The Republican Party is the party of fiscal discipline,” he told me, “and that was how we ran our company as well. We were conservative in both governance and finance. We always took care to avoid excessive levels of debt.” When he was in Congress, he found that fiscal responsibility was a political virtue more honored in the breach than in the observance. “It’s very easy,” he observed, “to be a legislator with a big heart: ‘We ought to do this, and we ought to do that.’ But who is ‘we’? And whose money is it?” He was the first to concede that “It’s never an exciting position to be a fiscal conservative,” but he felt it was the only sensible position since “the bills will have to be paid sooner or later.” He added that tax cutting, which by the time he entered Congress in the 1980s had become conservative orthodoxy, “is often a form of borrowing, too. Money in, money out: you’ve got to balance them both.”
Amo’s favorite president was Dwight Eisenhower, who was a close friend of his father’s and a regular visitor to the Houghton family home in Corning. Amo thought Eisenhower exemplified the Republican principle of fiscal responsibility, and he admired his success in balancing the budget, repressing inflation, exercising vigorous global leadership, and avoiding unnecessary foreign entanglements. But while he appreciated Eisenhower’s preference for smaller government, he was quick to point out that Ike knew that “only the federal government has the ability to make investments in critical areas — including education, infrastructure, research and development — that bring long-term prosperity to the entire country.”
Eisenhower’s political approach resonated with Amo because it was in line with his corporate philosophy, particularly his abhorrence of debt and his instinct for the long term. “Having money in the till,” he remembered, “gave us the independence to cultivate a long-term horizon. We could afford to be patient, and we could take advantage of unforeseen opportunities.” That broad perspective allowed Amo to sustain Corning’s pioneering research into fiber optics, which eventually became the basis for much of modern telecommunication and computer networking. It took almost twenty years from the key scientific and engineering breakthroughs until fiber became commercially viable, but by the time Amo left the company it had become a billion-dollar business.
In Congress, however, Amo found that short-termism ruled. He was particularly upset by Newt Gingrich’s decision, as newly elected Speaker of the House, to do away with the Office of Technology Assessment. To Amo, this decision epitomized the triumph of political expediency over the national interest. The OTA, he believed, “played a subtle but important role in informing the thinking of Congress, and it was necessary because the members of Congress by and large are lawyers, not scientists. They don’t understand the interaction of science with politics and the economy.” In the modern era, however, “The neglect of science is unaffordable; we can’t afford it competitively. Our competitive advantage comes from technical innovation, which in turn comes from investment in basic science.” But the OTA “stuck in the conservatives’ craw, and so it was gone. It was a critical example of dumb, short-term thinking.”
When Amo served in Congress, he identified with what he called “the governing wing of the Republican Party.” He appreciated leaders like Bob Michel and Bob Dole, who “believed in the GOP tradition of plain, uncomplicated, pragmatic government. They understood that the democratic process is fragile and depends on legislators who have integrity, decency, and respect for the other side. At the same time, they emphasized that moderation and civility aren’t inconsistent with taking bold and even daring actions. My Republican colleagues knew that it’s difficult to make democracy work when some insist on rigid, non-negotiable positions, or substitute emotion for reason. Governing Republicans have faith in our institutions and democratic processes, even when that doesn’t always produce results as quickly as they might like.”
Amo founded the John Quincy Adams Society to promote contacts between Republican lawmakers and corporate executives, in the hope that the legislators might adopt more of the executives’ pragmatic worldview. He initially called it the Reasonable Group, and then, after colleagues grumbled that nothing succeeded on Capitol Hill unless it was extreme, renamed it the Extremely Reasonable Group. He also founded the Republican Main Street Partnership as a defender of moderate Republicans in Congress. He intended it to be a counterweight to the Christian right and a counterpart of the Democratic Leadership Coalition.
Together with Rep. John L. Lewis (D-GA), Amo served as the first co-chair of the board of directors of the Faith & Politics Institute, which was created to bridge racial, religious, and political divisions among elected officials. Over the years, he and Lewis brought hundreds of members of Congress, as well as several U.S. presidents, on annual pilgrimages to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, site of the famous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers on peaceful civil rights demonstrators.
Amo was regularly voted the nicest member of Congress, which caused him to ruefully recall the famous saying that “Nice guys finish last.” It’s true that Amo was not a win-at-all-costs Republican, which put him at odds with Gingrich’s scorched-earth approach to political warfare. Distressed by the decline of cross-party friendships in Washington, he instituted a yearly bipartisan retreat at which members of Congress could get to know each other as human beings. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle called him “about as admired, respected, and liked as a politician is likely to be in this cynical age.”
But if niceness is supposed to mean softness, Amo was anything but that. During his last term in office, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution commented that “Amo is one of the last of a vanishing breed of moderate Republicans who work comfortably with Democrats on social and environmental policy. Their numbers have been declining and those remaining are under enormous pressure to toe the party line.” Amo’s independence and dedication to what he saw as the bedrock principles of Republicanism meant that he probably withstood more pressure from his party’s leadership than anyone else in Congress. In 1998, he was one of only five House Republicans to break ranks on the critical first vote of impeachment charging President Bill Clinton with lying to a federal grand jury. In 2002, he was one of only six House Republicans to vote against giving President George W. Bush the power to invade Iraq.
Amo didn’t mind being out of step with his party as it took increasingly conservative directions on issues including taxes, gun control, abortion, education, campaign finance reform, and the environment. But it did bother him that the moderates were being “out-thought, out-talked, and out-organized by the right.” A central problem for moderates, as he saw it, was that they weren’t zealots: “When you’re a zealot, you tend to divert a lot more of your energies and funds to particular causes. Our people on the moderate side are not like that; they want to go home after work and have a drink, pat the dog, and play a round of golf. The conservatives are out there banging away all the time. And, you know, that’s the problem with democracy. That’s how these extremists rise up, because the normal people don’t care.”
Amo was alarmed by Donald Trump’s rise through the Republican Party in 2016. “I’m not scared of Mr. Trump,” he wrote in one op-ed. “I’m scared of the impact his careless words and threats have here in our country. Ours is a good country, a decent country, a caring country. But today, in this new age of instant communication, I hear too much anger, blaming, and dark conspiracy talk. I don’t feel it is a true reflection of our country.”
But Amo remained an optimist to the end. He believed that most people were moderates and that the political system eventually would have to reflect that, since “It’s the middle of both parties that really makes the system work.” He remained hopeful about the prospects for a moderate Republican revival: “The pendulum swings back and forth, and I hope it will swing back to the middle again. If the people demand it, it’ll happen.”