Surfing is not a sport one expects a 63-year-old Member of Congress to claim for a hobby, but then again, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is no ordinary Congressman.
The 12-term California Republican has had a storied political career that is peppered with adventure. His tenure includes sneaking off to the front lines of the war in Afghanistan weeks before being sworn into office, maintaining a lifelong friendship with President Ronald Reagan and hobnobbing with celebrities such as John Wayne and Sammy Hagar.
But through all these escapades, surfing has remained at the top of his priority list.
Rohrabacher grew up on the West Coast and has been riding the waves since he was in high school. In fact, his space in the Rayburn House Office Building is decorated with three surfboards in honor of his favorite pastime.
A nearly 9-foot red, white and blue surfboard, which Rohrabacher refers to as his “East Coast surfboard,” is mounted high above a couch. The opposite wall displays the pair of boards that Rohrabacher and his wife, Rhonda, used to surf on their European honeymoon. The trip was one of their first marital compromises.
“When I first proposed and we decided to get married, I wanted to get married where we could go surfing on our honeymoon, and she wanted to get married in Europe because she loves Europe,” he says.
As luck would have it, Rhonda Rohrabacher’s great-great-grandfather hailed from Biarritz, a town in southwestern France that is widely regarded as the surfing capital of Europe. The couple wed in the church frequented by Rhonda Rohrabacher’s ancestors and then set off to surf their way through Europe.
Even now the couple enjoys hitting the waves. In fact, Rohrabacher is in the process of teaching his 6-year-old triplets how to surf.
This pastime is very much in line with Rohrabacher’s office motto, “Fighting for freedom and having fun,” which is everywhere. Rohrabacher drinks from a coffee mug embossed with the phrase, a wooden plaque engraved with the slogan hangs in his personal office and the motto has even popped up on an outgoing voice mail from his office.
Rohrabacher first began “fighting for freedom” as a teenager campaigning for Reagan during his first gubernatorial bid in California. During that race, Rohrabacher’s passion for the Gipper ran so deep that he even camped out on his lawn one night in an effort to talk to him about the group Youth for Reagan.
As Rohrabacher tells it, Nancy Reagan initially wouldn’t allow her husband to go talk to the stranger on the lawn, but Ronald Reagan eventually got past her.
“Reagan came running after me,” Rohrabacher remembers. “He had shaving cream on his face and said, ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute!’ So I had a nice conversation with him and that started a relationship that lasted all my life, until Ronald Reagan passed away.”
He later worked for Reagan, who is immortalized in the office with a large display of photographs, campaign posters and other mementos. One photograph shows Rohrabacher chasing Reagan and a gaggle of media with a giant microphone during his time as assistant press secretary in the 1980 presidential campaign.
“I recorded every word Ronald Reagan said so that no one would ever misquote him,” Rohrabacher says.
Another, more startling image shows Reagan appearing to punch a young, bearded Rohrabacher in the face aboard Air Force One. He is quick to explain that the president was simply showing him how he used to throw fake punches when he was a film actor.
It was while working in the Reagan White House that Rohrabacher took an active interest in combating communism and became what he calls a “freedom fighter.” Rohrabacher got to know the leaders of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, who were fighting against Soviet occupation of the region.
His belief in the cause ran so deep that he eventually headed to the battlefield. In the weeks before his 1988 election to Congress, Rohrabacher packed his bags and joined a mujahedeen infantry unit on the front line.
“I figured I had two months to do what I wanted before the State Department strangled me,” he says.
Rohrabacher ended up going through some artillery barrages. A small piece of dark shrapnel mounted on a plaque in his office recalls the period.
These days the only fighting Rohrabacher sees is on the House floor. Now that he is a husband and father, he spends more time at home and less time in harm’s way.
But if he ever needs a reminder of the adventures of his youth, all he needs to do is look around his office to take a stroll down memory lane.