Democrat Has Trick Up His Sleeve to Battle Irrelevance
“We got magic to do, just for you, we got f
oibles and fables to portray as we go along our way.”
Lyrics from the opening song of the musical “Pippin” are as good a place as any to begin the story of a backbench junior Democrat with one of the more novel approaches to making his mark in the House.
In a political pond with 435 ambitious fish, every one of them is looking for some way to stand apart. The long-timers have the best chances of becoming legislative playmakers or fundraising powerhouses, while the freshmen can bank some on their inherent novelty. It’s the members with tenure in the middle, and especially from the minority party, who have the biggest challenge getting noticed.
Consider the Democrats just starting their sophomore terms. Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard has the whole Hindu-veteran-who-surfs thing going for her. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is a new mother and a severely wounded war hero. California’s Raul Ruiz keeps putting his emergency room training to work helping distressed airline passengers. John Delaney of Maryland’s $100 million investment banking fortune makes him third richest in Congress. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts gets ample attention by virtue of his storied name alone. Texan Joaquin Castro has an identical twin who is Housing secretary. After them, the remaining 30 have more or less faded into the middle distance in the collective portrait of Congress.
This is where Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan and his penchant for prestidigitation come in.
During 14 years as a state legislator in Wisconsin, he gained a reputation as one of the most influential Democrats in the Assembly, a committed yet companionable liberal who had a knack for getting along — and forging compromise — with Republicans. But in his first term in Washington, Pocan’s fruitless pursuit of progressive policies in a deeply conservative House resulted in a relatively miniscule footprint — despite ending up with a pair of good committee assignments, Budget and Education and the Workforce.
(The closest he came to a national spotlight was a cringe-inducing appearance in June 2013 on “The Colbert Report”’s “Better Know a District” segment, where host Stephen Colbert spent eight minutes trying to derive ironic or juvenile humor from Pocan’s standing as the first married gay man ever sent to Congress.)
Turns out, all the while the congressman had a few tricks up his sleeve — quite literally — for making a different name for himself. This month, now that he’s safely ensconced (he took 68 percent last fall) in one of the country’s most liberal districts, centered on the leftist state capital of Madison, Pocan decided to try to make a splash with a talent he’s been cultivating since he was a kid.
He won a competition at 14 to become the top junior magician in his state and paid for college in the 1980s by doing magic shows and bartending. But for his first two years on the Hill, Pocan decided he wanted to be more workhorse than showman and reserved occasional performance of his trademark “close-up” tricks for his awed interns.
That changed this week, with the two-minute Mark Pocan Magic Monday pilot episode, a debut he’s promising to make into a regular video series to show off his sleight-of-hand skills while seeking to draw useful analogies between that mysterious world and the sophistries of legislating. He says his aim is to translate some of the Capitol’s arcana to his constituents — and the rest of the nation on YouTube — into the unusual language of entertainment he knows best.
“Doing magic was a great preparation for a career in politics,” the congressman says with a broad smile from his office in the Cannon Building. “Think about it: Misdirection, sleight-of-hand, deception. Heck, that sounds like Speaker Boehner’s 2015 agenda! Just kidding, Mr. Speaker.”
For his first partisan-tinged example of the similarities between lawmaking and magic, Pocan notes how often politicians “say a bill does one thing, but it actually does completely the opposite. Like how we’ll save a program like Social Security by destroying it. Not very logical, but ultimately deceptive and tricky — kind of like magic.”
And with that, he pulls out five playing cards (or are there more?) to illustrate his point in 35 mesmerizingly slick seconds. He draws from his coat pocket some cards that appear to have blank faces and blue backs, and transformed them in plain sight into a royal flush with red backs.
“See what I mean? Politicians too often say one thing, but actually do another,” he offers along with the reveal. “It’s a lot like magic.”
The civics lesson was worthwhile and the illustration was novel. Perhaps the biggest trick for Pocan will be keeping his routine fresh and relevant over the long term — especially if he’s committed to sticking with the weekly format. (An alternative would be filming a new trick only on Mondays the House is in session; Jan. 12 was the first of just 18 such days on the 2015 schedule.)
However he refines his approach, Pocan now is on course to become the first House member to use a genuine magic act as one of his official acts in more than a quarter-century — since the 1988 retirement of Rep. Ken Gray, an Illinois Democrat who died last July.
He dazzled his colleagues as a freshman in the 1950s by conjuring a bouquet of roses out of thin air while giving a speech on the House floor, and his career ended up being remembered much more for “out there” personal behavior than legislative accomplishment.
Gray’s reputation is a gentle reminder to members, like Pocan, who are looking for their way to break through the congressional clutter. If your reputation is having a shtick without an accompanying seriousness of purpose, that’s a foible even magic may not overcome.