Gods and Press Secretaries
Ken Johnson, the outspoken spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), made quite a scene at a meeting of GOP communicators last week.
With people buzzing about the Civil War flick “Gods and Generals,” Johnson employed references to the war between the states to exhort his colleagues to get ready to battle Democrats on the issue of medical liability legislation. And not surprisingly, the high-profile staffer puffed himself up in the process.
“You know, Billy is sort of like Robert E. Lee — the strategic thinker,” said Johnson, who if he worked for anybody else might be guilty of breaking the cardinal rule of not getting more headlines than your boss. “I’m much more like Stonewall Jackson, where I’m always charging ahead.”
“I’m a little more reckless, a little bit more of a risk-taker,” he said dramatically. “But I’m always riding to the sound of cannons.”
One bemused GOP observer couldn’t help but note that the movie vividly shows Jackson getting cut down by his own men. “I think Ken is more like Stonewall Jackson in that I can definitely see him coming under friendly fire,” joked this observer.
Noting that the speech went on and on, the observer added, “The movie is like 3 hours and 45 minutes. And Ken’s speech was coming in a close second.”
Johnson took the ribbing in stride. “I’ve been bush-whacked. But that’s OK,” he told HOH. “The next time the group asks me to speak, I’m going to give them my ‘Gone with the Wind’ analogy.”
In other words, he doesn’t give a darn.
NRCC Chairman Ashcroft? The National Republican Congressional Committee is raising some eyebrows with the fundraising pitch that it has sent out for its annual House dinner this month.
Attendees for the March 18 dinner, which is being billed as a “Salute to President George W. Bush,” are being asked for the standard information that the Federal Election Commission demands to help identify contributors: name, address, occupation, etc.
But then there’s a line saying, “Additionally, please provide us with the following security information.”
This includes “country of birth” as well as “race” and “gender” — all questions that campaign experts from both parties cannot recall ever seeing on a fundraising invite.
NRCC spokesman Carl Forti told HOH that a staffer put those questions in because of uncertainty about the guest list. While the president is not expected to attend, there will likely be at least one Cabinet member and other high-profile people.
Forti said security officials had requested that information at last year’s dinner, so the NRCC decided to ask the questions in advance this time. “I don’t know why they request the information,” he said. “It was done by either presidential advance or the Secret Service.”
As for whether this was a form of racial profiling, Forti said, “That’s ludicrous.”
John Gill, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said the agency “is not aware of a request for that specific event. However, we routinely work through host committee staffs at events to request personal history information for event participants.”
Gill added that getting this kind of information “not only makes the pre-screening process more efficient and effective, but it also benefits the attendees by ensuring that they are not misidentified.”
Laura Murphy, director of the Washington national office for the American Civil Liberties Union, was not impressed with any of those explanations.
“Is the NRCC saying that to be a supporter of the GOP, you have to disclose your race, gender and national origin? What kind of a precedent does that set for political participation in America?” asked Murphy. “Certainly, minority members of the Republican Party should be deeply concerned and question their leaders about this seemingly discriminatory practice.”
She added that “profiling has historically not proven an effective substitute for old-fashioned policing based on individual suspicion of wrongdoing.”
One Democratic strategist, meanwhile, found humor in the fact that the NRCC asked for the “gender” of each potential campaign donor.
“I just wonder what lengths they go to prove gender,” he joked. “‘Step behind the curtain, please.’”
Torch Still in the Driver’s Seat. HOH spies have spotted the Chrysler of former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D), and the car is still sporting the special license plates — “Senate 1” — that denote being the state’s senior Senator.
Lawmakers such as Torricelli, who dropped out of his re-election bid at the 11th hour last year amid ethics questions, are supposed to give those plates up after leaving office.
“I guess the decision to pull out of the race was a little easier than giving up his vanity plates,” cracked one Democratic source involved in New Jersey politics.
Steve Hodges, a spokesman for Torricelli, confirmed that the boss still has the plates but is trying to shed them. He said Torricelli first offered the plates to Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), but the state’s new senior Senator declined to take them.
Hodges said the plates are on the Chrysler, which is in storage in D.C., and will be returned once Torricelli gets rid of the vehicle.
“We’re waiting to sell the car,” he said. “Once we sell the car, the plates will be returned.”
Hodges said the car was probably spotted on a test drive, adding, “Do you know anyone who wants to buy a car?”
Bush Redux? Anyone trying to take a crystal ball to the 2004 presidential election might want to check out an interesting anniversary that passed last week.
On Feb. 27, 1991, The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Bush’s War Success Confers An Aura of Invincibility in ’92.”
The story by scribe Robin Toner began this way: “While the war in the Persian Gulf is not over, it has produced extraordinary levels of support for President [George H.W.] Bush and presented the Democrats with a daunting task in finding a candidate who can effectively oppose him in 1992, political professionals say.”
In fairness to The Times, however, the story also said that “a year is a lifetime in politics” and “even the most bullish Republicans cast a nervous eye on the economy.”
Toner told HOH with a laugh on Friday, “I do remember that story. It was a valuable lesson to me and a lot of other people about” how difficult it is to read the tea leaves on an election so far in advance.
Democrats see another lesson. “The same people already anointing ‘43’ to a second term probably didn’t do so well in their 1992 office pool,” said one strategist. “And popular wartime presidents who don’t learn from political history are doomed to defeat like their fathers before them.”
With peacenik Democratic candidates picking up at least a bit of steam, however, the party may want to take note of another line in the Times story from 1992. It said that the first Bush had “set the stage for a re-election campaign that draws a stark and brutal contrast between a party willing to use American force to counter aggression and a party that flinched.”
Celebrity Time. While Hollywood stars have been aggressive about expressing their opposition to a war with Iraq, actors Richard Dreyfuss and Polly Draper are coming to D.C. on Tuesday to shine a light on a different cause.
The celebrities are hosting a luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building with the Tourette Syndrome Association to push for government funding to study TS.
Draper wrote and starred in the 2000 flick “The Tic Code” with Gregory Hines. It was based on the life of her husband, Michael Wolff, a jazz musician who has TS.
The actress told HOH that their 8-year-old son, Nathaniel, also suffers from the syndrome. TS is a neurological mental health problem characterized by involuntary motor and vocal tics, and it can also affect the body in other ways.
“He can play the piano brilliantly, but he can’t hold a pencil,” Draper said of her son, who thus has trouble keeping up when taking notes in school.
Draper told HOH that there is a disparity in the fact that private schools can help young people with the syndrome, but public schools can’t. “It’s really about helping these children become more productive members of society,” she said.
On Wednesday night, meanwhile, singer Michael Bolton will headline a concert at Union Station in conjunction with Lifetime television’s effort to fan out across the Hill this week to promote the network’s campaign to end violence against women.
Burns, Baby, Burns. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), whose mouth has been known to land him in hot water on occasion, was in rare form last week.
This time, however, Burns was just trying to poke a little fun at the woeful performance of the University of Nebraska football team this past season.
“This must be a bunch of Nebraskans because they look like they are in mourning,” Burns cracked as he happened upon the breakfast that the Nebraska delegation holds for visiting constituents every Wednesday morning in the Dirksen cafeteria.
Burns, who was born in Missouri, likes to rib Nebraska because that’s the home state of his wife, Phyllis.
“As a huge college football fan and a former referee, he was just showing his support for Missouri,” a Burns spokeswoman told HOH.
The coffee served by the Cornhuskers, however, is apparently worth drinking. Burns was spotted stopping at one of the urns and pouring himself a cup of gratis coffee before heading on his way.
No Emergency. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency want to assure Hill denizens that they weren’t up to anything sinister by calling around to Senate offices looking for home phone numbers for lawmakers or staffers who would be notified in the event of a catastrophe.
As HOH reported last week, officials in the office of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Alfonso Lenhardt had circulated an e-mail urging staffers not to cooperate with FEMA because the agency was allegedly circumventing the normal chain of command.
“The notification process should be through Capitol Police, not through FEMA contacting each Senator’s office individually,” said the e-mail. “Capitol Police will then use our systems to send out emergency information.”
While FEMA’s Congressional Affairs office did not return a call seeking comment before last week’s item ran in this space, FEMA spokeswoman Laura Shane later called HOH to clear up the matter.
Shane said the exercise had nothing to do with terrorism. FEMA merely wanted to collect phone numbers so that they could contact lawmakers in the middle of the night as a courtesy if there’s a hurricane or other natural disaster in the Senator’s home state.
“It didn’t have to do with a terrorist event or the Capitol Police,” she said. “The Sergeant-at-Arms office misunderstood that. It’s been clarified.”