A maverick who used humor to sway others

James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Decades before the National Security Agency’s use of private cellphone data became front-page news, Otis Pike ’43 spearheaded Congress’ first major probe into allegations of abuse by U.S. intelligence agencies. As chairman of the Hou se committee charged with investigating whether the CIA had spied on U.S. citizens and organized coups abroad, Pike was “the model of a properly pugnacious public servant — sharp-tongued and not easily intimidated,” according to Time magazine. During the course of the investigation, in 1975, the director of the NSA admitted for the first time that his agency had eavesdropped on American citizens’ phone calls.

These revelations of government overreach were disturbing to Pike, who earned a reputation during his nine terms in Congress as a principled maverick. “Dad was a born contrarian,” says his son, Douglas Pike ’71. “He never got swept along with public opinion, and he always spoke his mind.”

A Democratic congressman from a Republican-leaning district in Long Island, Pike entered the House of Representatives in 1960 after unseating an incumbent in a close race. Once in Congress, Pike quickly became known for his razor-sharp sense of humor. Each election season, he would compose a ditty about his opponent’s flaws and sing it on the campaign trail, accompanying himself on the ukulele.

His frugality led him to ridicule government overspending, often with a comical twist. He drew attention in 1967 when he discovered that the Department of Defense was paying enormous sums for small parts that retailed at a fraction of the price. Holding aloft a tiny rod that the Pentagon described as “precision shafting,” Pike declared, “For once, the American taxpayer got exactly what he paid for.”

In 1973, he skewered a $14 million program that would have awarded extra flight pay to admirals and generals who spent their days pushing paper, rather than piloting planes. Pike, who had flown dive-bombers in the Marine Corps during World War II, protested the legislation on the House floor with his arms outstretched like a plane. To applause and peals of laughter, he expounded upon the dangers of flying a desk with faulty landing gear. The program was scrapped.

After retiring from Congress in 1978, Pike moved on to a second career as an opinion journalist, writing a twice-weekly syndicated column for more than 20 years. Although Pike had produced a column for a local Long Island paper throughout his time in Congress, Douglas Pike says his father relished the freedom that came with life outside the political limelight. “He could write whatever he wanted, without worrying about what his constituents thought.”

But Otis Pike remembered his time as a public servant with fierce pride. “No other career, except perhaps medicine, provides persons of limited wealth with such a wonderful opportunity to do good and important things for their fellow man. Or bad ones,” he wrote in a column in 1999. “I loved it.”

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11 is a graduate student and freelance writer based in Chicago.

Audio: Pike explains, in a 1978 radio speech, why he’s chosen to leave Congress. “No congressman minds working hard on important issues,” he says. “But this congressman is weary of wasting his time on drivel.”