Atlanta's Lewis is still striving

Associated Press
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., addressed 250,000 people on the National Mall in the March on Washington for civil rights in 1963. Today he is a senior deputy whip in the U.S. House.

WASHINGTON - When Democrats took control of Congress in January, Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta was rewarded with one of the best views in Washington.


As a member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership team, Mr. Lewis moved into a new office suite on the third floor of the Capitol. The window behind his desk has a linear view of the National Mall from the steps of the Capitol to the Washington and Lincoln monuments.

For Mr. Lewis, the move carried heavy symbolism. He says it still seems like yesterday that he was 23 and addressing 250,000 people on the Mall for the March on Washington in 1963, speaking just before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech.

Now 67, Mr. Lewis is wrapping up his 20th year in Congress. With his party's electoral prospects on the rise, he says he has no intention of slowing down.

"To me, it's amazing. When I spoke I was looking up here," he said in an interview, standing at the window of his new office. "Where I came from and the way I grew up, to be in the position that I'm in is for me just short of a miracle."

The son of sharecroppers from outside Troy, Ala., Mr. Lewis owes his new office to his position as the Democrats' senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes post in which he helps develop party policy and persuades colleagues to stand behind it. He is a leading member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and leads its oversight subcommittee.

But Mr. Lewis' stature in Washington exceeds his titles. Colleagues in both parties - from John McCain to Hillary Clinton - gush with praise for him.

He has been dubbed the "conscience of the Congress," and his endorsement is among the most coveted in Washington.

"I think he's one of the really great human beings I've met in my lifetime," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "I don't want to make him out as a saint ... but I don't know that I've met a more decent human being, with the exception of my wife."

Mr. Lewis' prestige hasn't always translated into legislative success. As one of the most liberal members of Congress, he is often on the losing end of policy battles on budgets, war, education and social issues.

Mr. Lewis and other anti-war lawmakers have repeatedly failed, for example, to stop the war in Iraq. Congress appears no closer to providing universal health care - Mr. Lewis' top legislative goal - than when he came to Washington in 1987. And fundamentally, if Mr. Lewis had his way, the government would be doing more to create economic opportunities for minorities and the poor.

His biggest disappointment is that "there are just still too many people in America that have been left behind."