WASHINGTON - A quiet man to the last, Sen. Craig Thomas died without fanfare the night of June 4, at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. His family was at his bedside, his Senate office reported. He was 74.
Homage to his long career in Congress came later, as colleagues remembered him on the Senate floor June 5. But a typical first reaction to word of Thomas' decease came from a couple of well-connected Republicans on Capitol Hill. They had last heard he was feeling better after some rough months in the grip of myeloid leukemia, first diagnosed last November. ''He's one of the good ones,'' said one, regretting that so many false witnesses and bribe-takers cling to office in Washington after Thomas takes his leave.
A former senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, now with the Holland & Knight law firm, said the two became friends after Thomas won election to the House of Representatives in 1989. Both later ascended to the Senate, where their friendly relations continued. Campbell was from Colorado, Thomas from Wyoming; airline connections and their shared border meant they spent a lot of time traveling together.
''Indian country lost a friend in Craig Thomas,'' Campbell stated in a release from Holland & Knight. ''We often discussed issues impacting Indian people. Craig was concerned about the plight of Indian health care and education, as well as tribal law enforcement. He looked forward to assisting tribes in development of their resources and expanding their economic opportunities. He was a man of great compassion, with a good heart for Indian people and their issues. As we say in the West, he wore a white hat.''
With his allegiance to Wyoming's mining industry and cattle interests, his backing for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his stellar Republican voting record, Thomas was never going to be on the good side of everyone in Indian country. But time after time on tough issues, from the Indian Trust Management Reform Act of 1994 to the Indian title of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, word came from within the inner sanctums of Washington's Indian policy formulation process that Thomas had proved helpful on Indian-specific issues.
After winning re-election to the Senate last November, Thomas became the ranking Republican on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Speculation must turn here to what Indian country may have lost when disease cut short his time as the committee vice chairman. As a rank-and-file committee member, he had sometimes amused observers by not always quite seeming to stay with the testimony, though often it turned out that his questioning took an indirect route to raising issues of cost, government efficiency or tribal self-reliance. As vice chairman in the few months of health left him, Thomas pursued a more tenacious tone in his questioning.
His last great public moments on the committee may have transpired March 8, when he led the questioning that laid bare Republican gamesmanship in the 11th-hour sabotage of the Indian Health Care Reauthorization Act, at the close of the 109th Congress in 2006. Half a dozen excuses couldn't shake Thomas, who closed his comments by calling for ''a little different arrangement this time.'' He again gave his support to the reauthorization, a leading priority of tribes.
Regular visitors to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Web site were in for a jolt of poignancy June 6, when Craig's enlarged Senate photograph replaced Sen. Byron Dorgan's on the site. Dorgan, D-N.D., chairs the committee and provided its official tribute.
''I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Senator Craig Thomas. I had the opportunity to work closely with him on a number of committees and issues. He was a wonderful man whose word was his bond ... a kind and thoughtful man; a proud son of the American West who never forgot about the people and the places he represented.
''For the past six months, I was privileged to have Senator Thomas serve as the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which I chair. His commitment to American Indians, and especially to those living on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, was evident in his strong support for Indian health care and other services to Native Americans.
''In recent months, Senator Thomas faced a challenging illness with great courage and grace. He was an inspiration to all of us who served with him and who were his friends. We will miss him in the United States Senate.''
Under Wyoming law, Thomas will be succeeded in the Senate by one of three Republicans to be nominated by the governor. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will decide whether to appoint a successor as the committee vice chair.