The Senator Has the Floor
Monday, August 15, 2005
Chuck Schumer hails from Brooklyn, which might be the least surprising biographical fact about him. Not only does the indefatigable Democrat embody many cultural stereotypes of the place -- the strong ethnic identity, neighborhood chauvinism and constant laments about how you can't get a "decent" bagel or slice of pizza in [insert non-New York place here] -- but Schumer mentions his roots nine times during a 90-minute lunch.
This itself is a Brooklyn characteristic: The borough is perhaps the most commonly self-referenced home town in America, a cultural badge of bluntness and middle-class pluck. Indeed, when Schumer says, "I am from Brooklyn," it is both an assertion of civic pride and an explanation for many of his personality traits, none of which is shyness or reserve.
"I am a gregarious person," says Schumer, gratuitously. Over 25 years in Congress, Schumer has acquired a reputation for craving the spotlight like Bob Dole craves sunlight. (Dole, by the way, coined the oft-adapted joke that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Schumer and a camera.)
"Sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey," Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, lamented last year in a joke-filled speech at the Washington Press Club Foundation. "Take a little bite of it, and he will throw his own feces at you." Corzine meant this lovingly, but Schumer didn't take it that way and Corzine later apologized.
Schumer sat down for lunch last week at Hunan Dynasty on Capitol Hill. He eats there a lot, loves the hot and sour soup (which he mentions four times) and the Szechwan shrimp (three times). Schumer is preparing for next month's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., and as one of the committee's more outspoken Democrats, he is even more hyper-visible than usual.
But hardly at the expense of other issues. On one representative day last month -- July 14 -- Schumer issued news releases in which he (1) announced legislation that would reverse plans to require passports at the U.S.-Canadian border; (2) called for the "immediate release of Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Resource Study"; (3) called for the suspension of presidential adviser Karl Rove's security clearance over his alleged role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame; (4) demanded that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "apologize and retract statements" that he placed a higher priority on stopping "catastrophic" terrorist attacks than a smaller-scale attack on a mass transit system; and (5) suggested a list of questions that should be asked of a Supreme Court nominee.
During Schumer's easy reelection campaign in 2004, his opponent, state Assemblyman Howard Mills, announced that he would "plant 25 trees to replace the trees killed last year to print Chuck Schumer's press releases.''
Schumer can be a bit of a battering ram. "When you say no to Chuck Schumer, it's just the beginning of the conversation," says Terry McAuliffe, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, who came to admire Schumer as one of the party's most prodigious fundraisers. Schumer now heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has helped Democrats raise $22.6 million through June -- compared with $20.9 million for its GOP counterpart.
His persistence could beat many horses beyond recognition. His July 14 news release calling for the suspension of Rove's security clearance was one of four releases on the Plame affair he issued that week on consecutive days.
All of this raises a variant on the old philosophical riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and Schumer doesn't issue a news release, did it really fall?
The World According To Chuck
Judge Roberts is clearly Topic A for Schumer these days, although it takes about 30 seconds to see that Topics B through Z are never far from his lips. Schumer is a master of asides, repeatedly excusing himself to "digress for a second" and to urge you to remind him "to tell you a great story about" so-and-so later.
"That's sort of how my mind works," Schumer says.