Match Made in Prison

Posted February 4, 2005 at 6:19pm

Following the House Republican retreat at the swanky Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, most GOPers headed back to their home states. North Carolina Rep. Howard Coble went to prison.

And not just any prison — the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, W.Va., where celebrity convict and domestic doyenne Martha Stewart has been held for the past few months for illegal insider trading. [IMGCAP(1)]

Coble, the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, had long planned the trip in order to visit former North Carolina

Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, according to his chief of staff, Ed McDonald.

Phipps was sentenced to a four-year term in 2003 for extorting money from carnival workers hoping to win a contract for the state fair.

During his visit to what’s been dubbed “Camp Cupcake,” Coble, along with freshman Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, did cross paths with Alderson’s most famous inmate.

“He did meet Martha Stewart by chance,” said McDonald. “He was walking by her and she said “Hi, I’m Martha Stewart.’ The Congressman said, ‘I know who you are.’”

Stewart is set to be released from Alderson next month, and shooting is to begin soon after on her new reality TV show “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”

Handshake Hogs. It has become a ritual for them at each year’s State of the Union address. They stake out aisle seats, often hours in advance, just to shake the president’s hand — and, of course, be seen by millions of television viewers.

One of the most notorious State of the Union handshake hogs is Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). Making her return to Congress after being defeated in 2002, McKinney was right back on the aisle this year. Perhaps she hoped to apologize to the president for her sensational accusation in 2001 that Bush knew ahead of time that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were going to happen?

Or perhaps she hoped to make a statement about her comeback from political demise. We don’t know, as her office declined to comment.

All we know is that she wanted an aisle seat so badly that she went into the chamber Wednesday afternoon and left a sign on an aisle chair with her name on it.

“It said something like ‘Cynthia McKinney, do not remove,’” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) told HOH.

The freshman lawmaker said he was astonished to see McKinney on the aisle after making such controversial remarks about Bush. “I could not do and say the things that she does and want to be on an aisle seat and shake the president’s hand,” Westmoreland said.

HOH saw the president shake the hands of several Members, while kissing the cheeks of others, but McKinney’s was not one of them. The Congresswoman’s spokesman declined to tell us if she got her handshake.

Another famous handshake hog, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), readily admits that shaking the president’s hand at State of the Union is his favorite pastime. He was an “aisler” all four years of the George H.W. Bush administration, all eight years of the Clinton administration and has now marked five years of the George W. Bush administration by hanging out in the aisle.

“It’s just a lot of fun. I really get a kick out of it. … It doesn’t matter who the president is,” Engel said, adding that when he was a kid, he would watch the State of the Union address on television “and only dream of one day being there.”

His dream came true again this year. “I did shake his hand. I was very pleased,” he said.

Beat It, Okie. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) got kicked out of his seat at the State of the Union address. He told HOH after the speech, “I tried to set with the Democrats tonight.” (“Set” and “sit” can be used interchangeably in Oklahoma.) He said he walked up to a group of Democrats and asked, “Can I sit here with you?” His smirk suggested he knew what the answer would be.

According to the Senator, the Democrats, whom Coburn would not name, told him, “We don’t really want you here. So move on.” He went and sat with Republicans.

Lost in Translation. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) was among the motley crew of lawmakers chosen this year to run Congress had disaster struck the Capitol during the State of the Union address.

The others were Miller’s reverse image, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and, from the Senate, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Essentially, a foursome that would have guaranteed the nation free-for-all oil drilling (Stevens), non-stop baseball (Conrad), more police officers and Mormon missionaries (Doolittle), and love not war man (Miller).

“I’m convinced of it, John Doolittle and George Miller could bring this nation together,” Miller dryly told HOH. “That’s what they had in mind when the picked us. They thought: Who could lead this nation?”

But just what did these two political polar opposites from California do all night? Like the lone Cabinet official who is whisked away by Secret Service agents just before the State of the Union, much hype and secrecy surrounds those who are chosen to preserve the legislative branch. All we’re ever told is that they’re spirited away to some top-secret undisclosed location.

Doolittle took his keeper of the flame role very seriously. “He’s very tight-lipped on it,” said Doolittle’s spokeswoman, Laura Blackann. “His whereabouts during the speech are unknown.”

Miller, however, obliged HOH’s request to tell how he spent his super-undercover night away from the Capitol, which culminated in a dramatic, middle-of-the-night phone call.

Declining police protection, Miller stopped by a reception at the Library of Congress. “I wanted to be well fed in case something happened,” he said. Then he went back to his office, put on some Thelonius Monk and tried his hardest to relax. “I kept looking out the window and the Capitol was still there,” he said.

Feeling calm, he turned on the TV and watched the speech. Afterward, Miller walked over to the Cannon Rotunda to do an interview with KGO-TV, San Francisco’s ABC affiliate. The cops walked in, he said, and told ABC to “turn off all the lights, the president is leaving the Capitol.” Miller said there were about 25 Members of Congress waiting to do their interviews and the cops said, “The lights cannot go back on until the president is back in the White House.”

Too bemused to be mad, the Congressman went home and went to bed. And then came the drama.

He was fast asleep, while his roommates, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) were having a giggly pajama party downstairs, when his phone rang. Someone was frantically yelling, “Are you OK? Are you safe?!”

“It was my wife,” Miller said. “A neighbor had heard that I’d been spirited away because of a terrorist threat or something. Obviously the story was lost in translation.”

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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