Those Leaving Congress Taking Eccentricities With Them
Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 3:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 3:35 p.m.
WASHINGTON | Oh, how much will be missed on Capitol Hill next year, when more than 80 current members depart, half of them involuntarily. Say goodbye to the foreign policy expertise of Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, to the institutional knowledge of many in the California delegation and, perhaps most sadly of all, to Sen. Kent Conrad’s bichon frise.
The dog, Dakota, reflecting Conrad’s home state of North Dakota, was as much a fixture in the halls of the upper chamber as marble staircases and indignant news conferences. It was oftentoted around by a staff member who tried valiantly to maintain his dignity as he cuddled the fluffy pet while its owner voted. Dakota will hardly be the only piece of current Capitol culture to depart.
Taking leave with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is her famous purse, which is carried by a rotating group of young men — a role known as “the purse boy” — as she makes her way from the Senate floor to her office or around town.
Never again shall Hill denizens see Rep. Timothy V. Johnson’s ubiquitous cellphone, which he had pressed to his ear all day as he walked around the Capitol calling every one of his Illinois constituents, nor ponder how Rep. Nan Hayworth of New York manages to avoid taking a spill as she races around in her stilettos.
There will be new members to rant about the errant ways of their colleagues, of course, but will any match the collective vituperation of former presidential contenders Ron Paul and Dennis J. Kucinich?
From colorful office decor to what are politely known as personal eccentricities, the expiring 112th Congress has left its mark in ways large, small and somewhat weird.
“It really is sort of sad,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., about his soon-to-be-former colleagues and their quirks. “You get into the routine of seeing certain people all the time, and even the people who are your most contentious adversaries you have certain affection for. I mean, you can’t make up an Allen West.”
West, the cantankerous congressman from Florida, will be missed, if for nothing more than his outrageous comments, which worked as reliable caulk that could fill a yawning news hole. Most notably, he liked to enumerate the number of House Democrats he believed were Communists — between 78 and 81 — but there were many more opinions over the course of his one-term career.
In terms of crankiness and general obstreperousness, West may have to yield to longer-serving members, especially Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, whose salty commentary, assorted takedowns and snap-crackle talk show banter is known far outside the Beltway. He once told an attendee at his own town hall meeting that “trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have an argument with a dining room table.”
Rep. Bob Filner of California is also known for his temper, including but not limited to the time he was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery after an altercation with a United Airlines baggage clerk while waiting for delayed luggage. (He later pleaded to a lesser charge and paid a fine.)
Then there is the fashion. Please bow your head in silence to mark the passage of Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York’s white carnation boutonniere. The tradition of wearing a lapel flower began 40 years ago, the congressman said, when he was teaching in a tough junior high school and picked up a carnation on a whim to wear to class. While his students thought it must have denoted a special day, he explained to them that “every day is a special day,” he said, and the flower became part of his daily attire.
“It became not a look from my perspective,” he said philosophically. “It became part of me and my outlook.”
He wears green on St. Patrick’s Day, and once a year or so he dons pink, just to throw people off.
“When I was first elected,” Ackerman said, “they said, ‘You know they’re not going to take you seriously if you’re a guy with a flower.’ I made one vote without it and it didn’t feel right.”
Across the Rotunda, there is Sen. Olympia J. Snowe’s ponytail, which sits with uncommon stillness down the back of the Maine Republican’s elegant suits, a look she has had “ever since I have known her,” said her Maine colleague, Sen. Susan Collins, who will stay on. No one really knows how Hayworth was able to get around on her stilettos, but she often claimed she could run in them.
But few accessories provoked as much corridor commentary as Hutchinson’s purse; several of those “purse boys” left her Senate office to go on to good law schools in Texas, several former staff members said.
“Many senators, men and women, have traveling aides that help them stay on time and carry materials for meetings,” said Dean Pagani, a spokesman for Hutchinson.
In the end, of course, it is the relationships that people will miss the most, although perhaps members will see their former colleagues walking the halls of Congress again as lobbyists. They would not be the first to make that transformation.
“There something special about each and every one of them,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said of the departing House members. “They’re all basically likable. No one votes for people who are unlikable.”
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