The G.o.p. Keynoter May Be a Hero in His Own Time—but History Never Forgets a Dog

updated 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If any doubt remains that artful politicking is the moral equivalent of showbiz, consider the case of Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt. At 17 he was minister of his own little Presbyterian church in Tustin, Mich., and was so spellbinding in the pulpit that his flock quadrupled in size in a single year. He worked his way through nearby Hope College as a Top 40 deejay. After earning his bachelor of divinity degree at Yale, he decided to forsake the ministry for the greater glory of public life. He helped finance his studies at the U of Michigan Law School as a TV newscaster, and eventually became a courtroom lawyer noted for his dramatic questioning and summaries. By 1966 he had moved into the oratorical big time as U.S. congressman from the Ninth District. A party-line Republican, he is ruefully considered by House Democratic Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas to be "probably the best speaker in the House."

Next week Vander Jagt's talents will be put to the ultimate test when he delivers the keynote address at his party's convention in Detroit. Vander Jagt knows what the keynote can mean. Ohio Sen. John Glenn helped blow his chance at the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1976 with a soporific speech. Warren Harding became President four years after he struck the proper innocuous tone in 1916. (At right are some other winners and losers.) As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee since 1976, Vander Jagt, 48, has perfected his delivery on behalf of congressional candidates in 47 states, and his vision of the payoff is clear. An announced candidate for Minority Leader, he says: "My real ambition is to become Majority Leader, then Speaker of the House."

To that end, he has been practicing "in my head a lot," he says, "and in rooms where I can pace. I've used broom closets and anywhere else I can go and talk to myself and not have people think I've flipped." Painfully shy as a boy, he credits a sympathetic high school teacher with helping him overcome it. Now he is the toast of Capitol Hill and his native western Michigan. "I'm the first Republican in 50 years to run unopposed," he boasts. In 1972 he was elected "Chairman of the House Gym Dinner Committee," an honorific job whose only responsibility was to throw a raucous feast for House members once a year. His successor was Rep. Morris Udall, the liberal Arizona Democrat chosen to keynote his own party's convention August 11. "Mo and I brought about the Gym Dinner's demise," Vander Jagt admits. "It went on for 12 years in 12 different locations. Nobody who had us once would ever allow us back. We would throw wet napkins, harass the speaker and everything else."

Though he will face an auditorium full of conventioneers with nothing to do but ratify the obvious, Vander Jagt hopes to give a speech that will live in history. "It's an almost overwhelming temptation to point out how bad the Carter administration has been because there are so many sure applause lines," he says. "I'm trying to resist the temptation. I want it to be a message of hope."

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