In early December, 1982, I walked into Congressman Hal Rogers’ office in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill to interview for a chief of staff’s job with a new Congressman. A short sparkplug of a woman came out to meet me.
“Hi,” she said in a thick Kentucky accent. “I’m Marty Driesler and I’m coordinating the interviews.” She was a bundle of energy, talking in short, rapid sentences, and juggling a dozen ideas at once.
Marty, chief of staff to Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, ushered me into an office to meet the freshman Congressman and sat in on the interview. During that interview, he asked me an interesting question:
“If I were in a car wreck that left me in a coma and unable to speak, could you get me re-elected?”
My answer was full of brashness.
“Hell yeah,” I said, “It would be easier if you were out of the picture.”
After the interview, Marty walked me out.
“He’s asked that question of a lot of people, but that was the best answer I’ve heard,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ll get the job but you and I have to get to know each other.”
I got the job, although it only lasted two years. My friendship with Marty Driesler lasted much, much longer. Over the years, she would tell the story of that question and my answer many, many times.
Marty became a needed resource during tenure as a freshman chief of staff to a freshman member of Congress. She was an idea machine and I came to depend on her when I wanted to try something.
If the idea was good, she’d encourage me. If it was bad, she didn’t mince words. “You’re full of shit,” she would say. “Why would you want to do something that stupid.”
In 1983, we were part of a Congressional delegation trip to Taiwan. After two weeks there, some of the group went to Hong Kong, but Marty, John Kachmar (Congressman Don Ritter’s chief of staff) and I flew back to the states. To pass the time during the 17-hour trans-pacific flight, we played poker and she cleaned out both of us.
“You know, I really miss my husband,” she said and then proceeded to describe, in minute, often profane, detail, just what she planned to do with him when she got home.
A few weeks later, I met Marty’s husband, Steve, at a reception at the Capitol Hill Club.
“You must be tired,” I said with a wink.
I explained what Marty has told us on the long flight home.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “She came home and slept for 18 hours.”
Marty continued to run Rogers’ Congressional office for several years before leaving to travel with Steve during his tenure as Senior Vice President and Chief Lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors. By that time, I was also working at the Realtors, as Vice President for Political Programs.
It was Marty who helped organize a surprise birthday party when I hit 40, and I helped return the favor when Steve made it to 40. We spent a lot of time with the Drieslers. They were at our home with other friends when the Redskins won the Super Bowl against Miami and again the following year when the Skins lost to Oakland.
“That’s it,” Marty declared. “Your home is now bad luck. We can never, ever, watch another Redskin game there.” They never did.
With Marty and Steve, we ate Sunday brunch at Jay Schroeder’s Restaurant in Falls Church and watched the Skins beat Denver in the Super Bowl. They went to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis when the Skins beat Buffalo and we watched the game with others.
We ushered in five New Years at their home, went to Kentucky Derby parties together, got drunk together and confided in each other.
We drifted apart after I left the Realtors in 1992 but when my life crashed under the weight of alcoholism a short time later, they were there and stuck with me at a time when others looked the away.
Steve left the Realtors and Marty returned to the Hill as chief of staff to Congressman David Vitter from Louisiana.
Then, one day, an email arrived from Steve. Marty had lung cancer and faced surgery where they discovered much of the cancer was inoperable and she started a long fight, using chemotherapy and experimental drugs. She continued to work, even though she tired easily and had to use oxygen nearly full time.
We had lunch last year. Her drive and optimism had not diminished. She was determined to keep working. Early results from experimental drugs looked good.
“You wait,” she said. “I’ll beat this thing.”
She left her job not long afterwards.
Earlier this year, Amy and I were in Illinois when a friend called to ask if we were going to attend Marty’s birthday party.
“Try to be there,” he said. “There may be not any more.”
We tried to get back, but couldn’t. When I did get back, I had lunch with Steve. He was cautiously optimistic.
“We take it a day at a time. That’s all we can do,” he said.
On Sunday, we were at our farm in Southwestern Virginia when the call came.
Marty died that morning.
I thought back to that day in the Cannon House Office Building almost exactly 21 years ago. I had no idea the meeting with that ball of fire would start a friendship of more than two decades. I smiled.
Then I thought about that lunch on the Hill last year. I had no idea that would be the last time I would see my friend Marty Driesler.
And the tears started.