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Congressional pranks: Eric Massa wasn't only one rolling with laughter on Hill

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; C01

To hear Eric Massa tell it, the latest scandal to cost a congressperson his job turns on the following question: Can't a boss engage in a little friendly tickling with his co-workers now and again?

If you ask Massa, a freshman representative (D-N.Y.) who resigned this week, we have reached a nadir in our once-proud tradition of office high jinks. Massa implied in a series of TV interviews Tuesday that he's a victim of a Taliban-esque code of decorum that has turned innocent tickling -- and, really, what could be more innocent than tickling? -- into a federal offense.

"Now they're saying I groped a male staffer," Massa told Fox News host Glenn Beck. "Yeah, I did. Not only did I grope him, I tickled him until he couldn't breathe, and then four guys jumped on top of me. It was my 50th birthday."

Oh, good times! And, just for the record, scratch the whole "groping" thing. Massa, who had been under a congressional ethics investigation, later denied on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he groped anyone.

Leaving aside the possibility that what Massa engaged in constitutes criminal assault, reports of tickle parties on Capitol Hill should constitute a welcome development. Inter-colleague tickling suggests an undercurrent of frat-house hilarity in an environment that has always seemed institutionally mirthless. Is it possible that the Hill isn't just the dull beige epicenter of subcommittee meetings, pretentious floor speeches and the occasional outbreak of legislation? Could it secretly be, as Massa's defense suggests, a more lighthearted place where the occasional ticklefest is not utterly out of character?

Ask Senate historian Donald Ritchie for a few instances of congressional levity -- pranks and practical jokes -- and he pauses to think. Well, he offers, there's the traditional gag played on new Senate pages: From time to time, an unsuspecting page is ordered to retrieve a "bill stretcher" from an office in the Capitol. Of course, there's no such thing as a bill stretcher, but the naive page doesn't know that. So the page goes to an office, where he's directed by someone in on the joke to another office. And so on. Ha-ha!

Oh-kaaay.

There was also the time, Ritchie says, that Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-W.Va.) beloved dog Billy died. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) broke the news to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who offered to eulogize Byrd's pet on the floor. Schumer asked what the dog's name was. "Fido," said Kennedy. And so Schumer innocently went with it in his address.

Oh-kaaay.

Then there's Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who styles himself as an accomplished practical joker. A classic Nelson gag: asking incoming senators just before their swearing-in ceremony which Bible verses they'll read at the ceremony and watching them blanch at their unpreparedness. (There's no such requirement, you see.) During such lighthearted moments, the senator likes to show his hand with a hearty "Gotcha!," says Nelson's communications director, Jake Thompson.

A favorite Nelson target is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). About two years ago, Nelson and some staff members sneaked into McCaskill's office and pasted Nelson's face over McCaskill's on all of her office photos. McCaskill paid him back a few months later by pasting University of Missouri Tigers garb on the pictures in Nelson's office.

"The Hill is a pretty intense place," says Thompson. The occasional practical joke "does lighten things up."

Republicans can be cutups, too. Just ask them. Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) recounted in Roll Call last year that he was in the office of a colleague, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), when Durbin received a call from Vice President Biden.

"I pick up the phone and say, 'Pizza Hut,' " Graham told the newspaper. "He says, 'This is Vice President Biden.' I say, 'I don't give a damn who you are, this is Pizza Hut and we're busy. What do you want?' He says, 'I'm sorry,' and I say, 'No, no, don't hang up.' It threw him for a loop."

But looking for comedy in the legislative world is usually much easier if you turn the lens the other way. The fact is, Congress provides plenty of laughs just by being Congress.

On Wednesday, Elaina Newport, producer for the satirical troupe Capitol Steps (composed, in part, of former congressional staffers), was busily trying to reduce the Massa episode to its comedic essence. "We'd be out of business if Congress was competent and solved all our problems and was respectable," she said. "We're like repossessors or funeral directors -- we're there when something goes wrong."

And tickle parties on the Hill? Newport will tell you: You can't make up raw material that good.

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