Pols just wanna have fun?

Al Kamen
Columnist April 16, 2013

Rep. Steve Cohen’s news conference last week, in which the Tennessee Democrat bafflingly tried to explain his deleted tweet to pop icon Cyndi Lauper, was more than just a Friday diversion. It was truly an oddball event for the ages.

The spectacle may have been wacky, but it has precedent.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

History is littered with examples of lawmakers holding news conferences to address embarrassing or strange issues. Basically, these are the kinds of events that give PR types nightmares.

Think of then-Rep. Anthony Weiner’s news conference in which he finally confessed (after previous denials) that the undies-clad man in a photograph he had tweeted was him. The circus-like event included lewd heckling and a cameo by the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who commandeered the podium for nearly 15 minutes before the New York Democrat appeared.

And former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee hosted an odd event in late 2007 when he scheduled a news conference to unveil an attack ad against rival Mitt Romney. Huckabee arrived at the news conference only to announce that he wouldn’t be airing the ad — but then proceeded to show it to the assembled media anyway.

Reporters could be heard laughing.

Our favorite example isn’t a news conference, but close enough: a public statement issued by a lawmaker’s office. The story, which our colleague Karen Tumulty recalled, goes like this: In 1994, Sen. Howell Heflin (R-Ala.) was dining with reporters in the Senate restaurant. As he spoke, he reached into his pocket for a hanky but instead pulled out a pair of women’s underwear.

Afterward, his office issued this statement, which might go down in history as the best congressional document ever (Tumulty keeps a copy as a souvenir): “I mistakenly picked up a pair of my wife’s white panties and put them in my pocket while I was rushing out the door to go to work. Rather than take a chance on being embarrassed again, I’m going to start buying colored handkerchiefs.”

The ex- files

This is what a congressional hearing looks like in some kind of bizarro parallel universe: All your favorite past members are there, including former senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) and former representatives Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.)., Merrill Cook (R-Utah), Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

And the topic? Extraterrestrials. As in little green men. And whether there’s a conspiracy within the U.S. government to cover up their existence.

A longtime UFO-truther organization called the Paradigm Research Group is holding what it’s calling a “Citizen Hearing on Disclosure,” a five-day event at the National Press Club to explore the matter. The confab, which kicks off on April 29 and was brought to our attention by our pals at Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill, will be styled to resemble a real Hill hearing, complete with witnesses, statements, the whole shebang.

And to give the proceedings the proper air of legitimacy, the hearing’s organizers enlisted a colorful roster of former members of Congress to wield the gavel and question the witnesses. Organizer Stephen Bassett tells us the group identified about 100 former lawmakers they thought might be up to the task and ultimately settled on a bipartisan panel of six.

The “committee” members aren’t necessarily believers in extraterrestrial life, he says — and that wasn’t a job requirement. “It is assumed that they are skeptical,” Bassett says. “Their job is to be objective fact finders.”

The event will cost upward of $600,000, he said, including fees of $20,000 to each of the former members, making it the biggest event the group has held (it’s hosted other news conferences around Washington, including a 2007 one aimed at pressing presidential candidates to support government disclosure of UFO sightings).

Why the push now? Bassett says there’s growing pressure on the U.S. government to open up about what it knows, and all advocates need is a “critical-mass event” like the hearing to push them and the mainstream media. And there’s a generous private (and so far unnamed) donor willing to foot the bill.

Significant others

The Hillary Clinton State Department had Washington power couple Phil and Melanne Verveer in senior positions: she as ambassador at large for global women’s issues and he as coordinator of international communications and information policy.

The John Kerry State Department also may boast its own dynamic duo. There’s chatter that Dan Sepulveda , who was on then-Sen. Kerry’s personal staff, is moving off the Hill to Foggy Bottom to replace Phil Verveer.

Sepulveda, who worked for President Obama when he was a senator and was also an assistant U.S. trade rep, joined Kerry’s Senate staff in late 2009 to work on communications, commerce and trade matters. He’s now working for a temporary senator, William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.).

Sepulveda is the longtime (some 14 years) boyfriend of Heather Higginbottom, former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Higginbottom, who had been Kerry’s legislative director in the Senate, was recently tapped to be his counselor.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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