1995 Profile in Courage Award recipient Michael Synar with Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, May 8, 1995.

Background

In his sixteen years as a U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma, Michael L. Synar distinguished himself for his unwavering commitment to serve the public interest, no matter how powerful the foe or great the political risk. As a leader of the anti-smoking forces in Congress, Synar introduced legislation to restrict advertising of tobacco products and to include tobacco in the list of products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and passed a bill requiring a warning label on smokeless tobacco. He also led the campaign for public land reform and called on ranchers and mining and timber companies to pay fair market value for their use of federal lands. In addition, Synar single-handedly challenged the 1985 Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction plan and the legality of key provisions of the bill, which were later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1994 Synar paid the price for his commitment to the public interest when he lost his bid for a ninth term, finally succumbing to the cumulative efforts of a controversial voting record that was often at odds with his rural Oklahoma district and to the relentless efforts of powerful special interests to unseat him. He died in January 1996.

...I probably would still be sitting in Congress if I had chosen the path of a lot of people, which is to come here, duck your head, don't take on controversial issues and go home. [But] we didn't come up to Washington to have a long career. We wanted a distinguished career.

During his 16 years in Congress, Mike Synar, 44, the Democratic congressman from the 2nd District in Muskogee, Oklahoma, has stood tall as a symbol of political courage with a career marked by an unwavering commitment to serve the public interest, no matter how powerful the foe or great the political risk.

Synar earned a reputation as a passionate legislator, a powerful populist and a political maverick with an extraordinary devotion to principle, qualities that some have considered to be great assets and others impossible liabilities. Synar distinguished himself as a congressman by taking on tough issues that were often highly controversial, pitting him against leaders of his own party or his own state and powerful special interests and corporate giants, resulting in repeatedly tough races for reelection.

In 1994, Synar paid a price for his commitment to the public interest when he lost his bid for a ninth term, finally succumbing to the cumulative effects of a controversial voting record that was often at odds with his rural Oklahoma district and the relentless efforts of powerful special interests to unseat him. Undaunted, Synar said that "if everybody wants me to lick my wounds or feel bad about [losing], they've got the wrong person. I have had the opportunity of a lifetime."

In his commitment to make good public policy on behalf of his constituents in Oklahoma, Synar often defied some of the most powerful and moneyed special interests in the country. His most high profile crusades were waged against tobacco companies, cattle ranchers, the gun lobby and the energy industry.

• As a leader of the antismoking forces in Congress, Synar introduced legislation to restrict advertising of tobacco products and to include tobacco in the list of products regulated by the Pood and Drug Administration, and passed a bill requiring a warning label on smokeless tobacco.

• He led the campaign for public land reform and called on ranchers and mining and timber companies to pay fair market value for their use of federal lands.

• Synar supported President Clinton's anticrime bill, which banned assault weapons among other reforms, and fought to ensure that rural areas receive half of the $3.2 billion allocated for state governments, citing that "crime happens in rural areas too"; he was a consistent supporter of the Brady Bill and its waiting period for gun purchasers, so that law enforcement officials can check their background.

• Synar fought for the elimination of the billion-dollar Synthetic Fuels Corporation, even though it was supported by powerful energy interests in Oklahoma.

One of Synar's most noted efforts was his single-handed challenge of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction plan and the legality of a key portion of the bill, which was later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Synar also used his chairmanship of a House Government Operations subcommittee to investigate and publicize waste, fraud and abuse in government programs, such as the Department of Defense's spending on the Stealth Bomber, and the personal use of government-owned planes by government officials and their wives at the taxpayers expense.

Serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Synar played a key role in the first major overhaul of energy law in a decade by writing portions of the 1992 bill that encouraged greater use of natural gas. He also challenged the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with improprieties in the Superfund program for cleaning up hazardous waste.

Synar, who rarely accepted political action committee (PAC) contributions, also took the lead in campaign finance reform and sponsored legislation to curb such contributions.

Synar was born in Vinita, Oklahoma, in 1950. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma, where he received a B.A. in 1972 and a J.D. in 1977. In 1973, he received an M.S. from Northwestern University, and studied economics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1974. Synar was first elected to the U.S House of Representatives in 1978. He died of brain cancer in January 1996.