By Dana Milbank
Friday, July 25, 2008
Congress, its support at 14 percent in the latest Gallup poll, is having some self-esteem issues. Yesterday, lawmakers happened upon a novel solution.
The solution wore a red spandex tank top with glitter and stars. It had striped 1970s short shorts and leg warmers. And it stood on the terrace of the Cannon House Office Building during the lunch hour singing "Yankee Doodle."
"Get 'em up!" Richard Simmons shouted. "Here we go!" The aging fitness icon punched the air as he sang "I'm a Yankee Doodle DAAAAN-DEEEEE." Congressional staff members danced in lines behind him. "Scissors! Now, rumble! And, rainbow! Oh, yeah, baby!"
Sixty years old and his wild hair thinning, Simmons had spent the morning testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee about the need for more phys ed in schools. But he devoted just as much time to helping the lawmakers feel better about themselves. "Nothing is greater," he told Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), who shed 100 pounds, "than to lose the weight like you did and to look in the mirror and say four words . . . 'I am worth it.' "
"I was shocked," agreed Keller, "that the biggest side effect is I'm hardly stressed over anything."
"You're stressful and you're cute," the flamboyant witness observed.
"I'm stressful now," Keller admitted.
Congress has cause to be stressed. Its standing in public opinion polls gives it the popularity of the fat kid who always gets chosen last for kickball. But if Richard Simmons could overcome his troubles to become a marvel of self-promotion, maybe Congress could, too.
"I was overweight, a little lethargic, a little short," the 5-foot-6-inch star of aerobics videos testified. "I was not a jock. . . . I was 268 pounds." But then he was "bitten by the sweat bug," he said, and, his voice breaking, he proclaimed: "I'm not 268 pounds anymore, and I'm still not a jock -- but I am fit!"
His tale of redemption turned the hearing room into a support group. Ostensibly there to talk about childhood obesity, the lawmakers talked about themselves. "I'm still waiting to get picked for the congressional basketball team," announced George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman.
"I was a Latin teacher," declared Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.).
"I was coaching in the high school," added Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.).
"I was . . . the mother who had the most boring refrigerator," disclosed Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.).
Perhaps moved by Simmons's tale of childhood obesity, lawmakers and witnesses traded tales of their own struggles with the scale.
"I felt fat," said Lori Rose Benson, a witness from the New York City schools.
Keller spoke at length about his life as "someone who has lost 100 pounds."
"I lost over 30 pounds," said Robert Keiser, one of the witnesses.
"I've lost 42," added Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.). "Hopefully, in another six months I can get off these pills."
The Simmons hearing may not have been the most shocking thing on Capitol Hill yesterday (the Senate Judiciary Committee had a panel on polygamy), but it came close. Simmons entered the room kissing everybody in his path: the public waiting in line, reporters, the Washington Post photographer as she tried to photograph him, and the forehead of Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "I love everybody!" he declared. His eyes filled with tears as lawmakers loved him back; "you can't help but love Richard," testified Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).
Simmons arranged for a lectern to be placed on the witness table, so he could stand and speak as if delivering the State of the Union. A few sentences into his address, a technician came over to turn on his microphone. "Can I start over?" he inquired. Miller teased the standing witness: "I'd be glad to relinquish this seat to you."
"Maybe one day I'll have your seat," Simmons replied.
Even members of Congress applauded the performance. Wamp walked over to give Simmons a fist bump. And Simmons did not stop performing. When the chairman, questioning another witness, noted that Simmons had been frowning at one of her points, he interrupted.
"I was not!" Simmons insisted.
"Yes, you were," the chairman said.
"No, I wasn't."
Chairman Miller quickly lost control of the hearing, as Simmons questioned witnesses himself ("I think it's education -- what do you think, Doctor?"), referred to himself as "the sweatin' man" and fellow panelist Tim Brown of Oakland Raiders fame as "our football man," and dispensed his views on education policy. "The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to make our children well-rounded," he said. "Well, it made them rounded."
After the gavel fell, Simmons shed his suit for his workout gear, then bounded over to the Cannon terrace, where "Let's Hear It for the Boy" was playing on loudspeakers. After his Yankee Doodle performance, he spotted a woman in a Jesus T-shirt. "Come here, girl!" he commanded, swinging her across the terrace to "Dancing in the Street."
"Take it around!" he called to the crowd.
"All right, shake it!"