On a recent afternoon, Lester Wolff tried to recall when, exactly, he first met John F. Kennedy. “Let me go back. It’s a little bit confused in my mind right now,” he said. His lunchtime meal — steamed dumplings and a cold Coors Light — sat mostly untouched on his kitchen table while he thought it over.
A few seconds passed, no more: It was 1960; Kennedy had not yet been elected president and Wolff was not yet in Congress. “I did an interview with him out in California,” Wolff said. “He had a great mind. I was not as much an admirer of Bobby as I was of Jack Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy had kind of a vicious streak in him.”
On the walls of Wolff’s airy, feng shui–tuned home in Muttontown, a tony Long Island village, are photographs of the presidents and historical figures he has met in his half-century of public life. There is Bobby, stumping for Wolff when he ran for Congress. There is Lyndon Johnson, clenching Wolff’s hand in the White House. There are the popes and world leaders, the legendary colleagues like Charlie Rangel and Ed Koch. There, near the bottom of his office wall, is Hillary Clinton.
Nowhere is Donald Trump.
“He is a fascist. No question in my mind,” Wolff said. “There was Hitler, there was Mussolini. Many of the dictators — he’s following the same route, all over again.”
At 98, Wolff is one of the few people left who remember the rise and fall of fascism. He’s the second oldest former member of Congress alive, but, as he’ll remind you, he’s the oldest Democrat. He was born on January 4, 1919, a few weeks before the Eighteenth Amendment made Prohibition possible. Woodrow Wilson was president.
He served in Congress from 1965 to 1981, and teaching, books, and various private-sector jobs followed. He refuses to retire. “I work five days a week, except Saturdays,” he said, a concession to Shabbos. Until a few weeks ago, he walked without any help, but he’s now in a boot after breaking his foot. He expects to shed the walker soon enough.
Shortly after Trump was sworn in, Wolff showed up at a town hall for the Democratic congressman who now holds his old Long Island seat, Tom Suozzi. “Lester sat right in the front row,” Suozzi recalled. “He still has a real political sense about him.”
Wolff has a wispy mustache, gone white from his congressional days, and frequently flashes a bright Cheshire Cat smile. He speaks in an easy rasp. Ask him how he keeps up with the surreal maelstrom that is current affairs today, and he’ll give the answer of anyone six decades or so his junior: the New York Times and Twitter. It’s hard to imagine there’s an older Twitter user. Always curious about technology — he owned one of the early IBM personal computers — he’s on his account, @RepWolff, every day; often, he’s taking potshots at Trump. (“Trump disconnect so real he must think misogyny is another entrant in his Miss Universe contest” is one of his recent best.)
When not tweeting, he’s still consulting on Taiwanese affairs, a specialty dating back to his tenure as chairman of the House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. He travels occasionally to Washington to interview politicians for a show called Ask Congress, which he began moderating a few years after leaving office (no longer on PBS, it’s findable on YouTube). He manages the askcongress.org website, cataloging contact information for legislative bodies across the world. He’s plugging away on a memoir.
“He’s one of the most exciting personalities I’ve ever met. We’ve traveled around the world many, many times together,” said Rangel, the former Harlem congressman. “He’s probably the most traveled member of Congress.”
If anyone is equipped to make sense of this grim new world in view of the turbulent century that birthed it, it’s probably Wolff. A native of Washington Heights, he attended George Washington High School a few years ahead of Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan. He cast his first vote for Franklin Roosevelt. Classified 4-F for World War II (asthma got in the way), he volunteered for the Civil Air Patrol, hunting for German submarines.
After attending NYU, Wolff worked in the advertising and corporate world, as well as in media. He was an executive for the old Long Island Press and produced a local political show, Between the Lines, scoring interviews with JFK, Kissinger, and Carmine DeSapio, the last Tammany Hall kingpin.
A liberal Republican until shortly before his first campaign, Wolff had grown disillusioned with the party by the time Barry Goldwater, a pioneer of the conservative movement, secured the GOP nomination for president. Already wealthy enough to ponder an early retirement, Wolff was hungry for something new. He challenged a Republican congressman on Long Island, Steven Derounian (“he was to the right of Genghis Khan,” Wolff quipped), and scored an upset as LBJ crushed Goldwater in 1964.
When Wolff arrived in Congress, he cast his first votes for the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and for the Voting Rights Act — all part of Johnson’s Great Society programs. He marched in the South during the civil rights movement. Back home, he helped scuttle one of Robert Moses’s destructive megaprojects, a bridge joining Long Island to Connecticut.
As part of a 1978 congressional delegation to China, Wolff met with Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese president who reformed the nation’s economy after Mao Tse-tung’s death. One of Wolff’s proudest moments in Congress was authoring the Taiwan Relations Act, which in 1979 established the United States’ unofficial relationship with Taiwan and recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. In turn, America promised to provide Taiwan with military weaponry.
“The interesting thing is that it’s an act of Congress — it has a higher legal standing than any other treaty in the U.S.,” explained Raymond Kuo, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University and an expert on Taiwan. “If the president does not provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, Congress can impeach the president based on the Taiwan Relations Act.”
Comity in Congress drove such sweeping legislation. What’s striking to Wolff is how polarized politics has become. When asked if he ever imagined that someone like Trump could become president, he lamented that in the past the “bad guys” had usually been stopped. When pressed on who these bad guys were, he cited Goldwater, for one.
Then he added a surprising caveat: “In fact, he and I became very good friends.” Both men were members of the Civil Air Patrol in Congress. Goldwater ended up in Wolff’s squadron. Such bipartisan congressional friendships are almost unthinkable today.
Looking back, Wolff says he never could have believed, as a young congressman, that the country would one day elect a black president. What has followed has been perhaps far more unfathomable. Trump “goes beyond the pale. It’s a shame,” he said. “I think he really believes these things that he’s doing are right — and not only believes that they’re right, but believes that he’s the sole possessor of all knowledge. He’s a danger to the world, not only to us.”
Even during the Cold War, Wolff didn’t imagine it would come to “the annihilation of mankind.” These days, his thoughts turn darker. “With this man I do believe it’s possible. The Cold War, you had reasonable people….He will take risks that are inordinate. He’s playing Russian roulette with the world.”
Like virtually every Democrat, Wolff assumed Clinton was going to defeat Trump. On election night, as the returns came in and it was clear the black-swan presidency had arrived, he had unsettling déjà vu. He’d experienced something like this before, in 1980, when, as a vaunted incumbent, he was unseated by a 27-year-old Republican firebrand named John LeBoutillier. Wolff hardly campaigned. His congressional career was over.
But it wasn’t like Wolff to take it too hard. He remained politically active and became chairman of the Pacific Community Institute at Touro College. His house, which he describes as “Jewish-Asian” themed, is stocked with Chinese artwork and numerous Buddha sculptures.
Just about everyone who meets him these days wants to know how to live, body and mind intact, to 98. The secret? He smiled and pointed upward. “God. And good genes.”
An observant Jew, he wakes at 6:30 every morning and prays for about an hour. Musing more on his longevity, he said he never drank much and smoked a pipe instead of cigarettes. A trip to Denmark years ago convinced him to eat lox for breakfast. His wife, whom he credited for his success, died in 1997, but his two children call him every day.
Wolff said he has wondered why God has “allowed me to be here for so long and in good health with good mental ability. Why?”
“I feel there’s something, that there’s a mission I’ve yet to perform before I go,” he said. “What is it? I don’t know.”