A July 27 Style article on Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) gave an incorrect name for his father, Virgil, and mistakenly identified one of Thomas's pets, Fred, as a dog. The animal is a cat. In addition, a quote from Republican lobbyist Ed Kutler should have included his statement that Thomas's legislative expertise is one of the factors that other members of Congress can find intimidating. (Published 7/30/03)
Rep. Bill Thomas gets up when it's still dark. It has been reported in the media that Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, rises as early as 4:30 a.m. But that's a sore spot with Thomas. A lot of things are.
No, he does not always wake at 4:30, Thomas declares, after a reporter asks about it. In fact, on this particular morning Thomas set his alarm for 5. "So 4:30 was a little early!" he says, flashing a gotcha grin.
This 4:30 myth is emblematic of how the media perpetuates fiction, he says. It relates to how public impressions are formed and how a generically named congressman -- a hardworking Republican from Bakersfield, Calif. -- can inspire such bipartisan dislike. "You guys just latch on to this stuff," Thomas says. "I actually sleep in some days. Until 6!"
He scrunches up his face in a look of disgust, as if someone had opened a can of rotten sardines. He starts to say something else, but then takes a deep breath and drops the issue of when he wakes up. For now.
Thomas, 61, is trying to stay on his best behavior. "All of us are," says Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, who is standing a few feet away from Thomas in a House conference room. It is late on Thursday and a group of House and Senate negotiators has just finished a meeting. The agenda was Medicare legislation. But the red-hot subtext is the poisoned relations among Ways and Means Committee members. The bad feeling -- simmering for years -- burst into public view 10 days ago when a routine session on pension legislation devolved into a name-calling free-for-all. It culminated in a mass walkout by committee Democrats, with Thomas calling the Capitol Police to oust them from an adjacent library.
The donnybrook spurred days of charges, laments and bad publicity, much of it focused on Thomas's reputation for inelegant conduct. Thomas was pressured by the Republican leadership to apologize, to bring an end to this embarrassing episode.
As head of the sprawling Ways and Means Committee, Thomas is at the legislative forefront of the nation's most pressing domestic matters: tax policy, Medicare reform, prescription drug coverage, Social Security. He wields his power with savvy, if not always grace. "It's the classic Machiavellian question of, is it better to be loved or feared," says Mark Isakowitz, a Republican lobbyist who calls Thomas "perhaps the most productive legislator in Congress" as measured by his ability to drive the Bush agenda through Congress
A former professor of political science, Thomas is known for his work ethic and keen mind. He reads voraciously, down to the footnotes, perpetually bent on making himself an expert on anything before the committee. He is equally bent on demonstrating this expertise to others.
"I always tell him, 'Bill, if I ask you the time, you'll tell me how to build a clock,' " says former House majority leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.). "He says, 'No, Dick, if you asked me for the time, I would explain to you all the options you had, and then I'd tell you how to build a clock.'
"See," Armey says, "He even had to one-up me there."
Thomas has the fidgety manner of an overgrown boy (one who chews unlit cigars). He is prone to radical swings of tone and subject. One former staffer recalls a phone call from Thomas that began as a stream of consciousness lecture on some legislative arcana. It segued into a burst of uproarious laughter and culminated in an out-of-nowhere tantrum that ended with Thomas saying the aide had just uttered "the stupidest thing [Thomas] had ever heard." The congressman then slammed down the phone. The call lasted two minutes.
Thomas can also be generous and loyal, traits that are returned by admirerers quick to defend him. "You hear all these ridiculous stories, but I've never had a bad experience with him," says Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Thomas protege.
Thomas is commonly described in more neutral terms: "fascinating" or "extremely complicated." It is also routine for colleagues to conclude simply that they've never met a man like Bill Thomas in their life.
"Never!" Rangel says when asked if he ever had. "Not even close."
In the past, Rangel has declared himself unqualified to assess Thomas. "I don't have any training in psychiatric evaluation," Rangel told the New York Times last year. In a hearing early this year, after Thomas ridiculed a Democratic argument, Rangel told Thomas, "You really advertise the need for prescription drugs."
Thomas speaks in a know-it-all's cadence. His voice is high-pitched and cracks often. He has shed tears on numerous public occasions: when the House passed a trade bill two years ago, during a groundbreaking for a veterans' outpatient clinic, during a Medicare vote, during a news conference about a trade bill, during going-away parties for his staff.
Still, it's difficult to describe Bill Thomas without cataloguing some Stories About Bill Thomas.
Chronic 'Happiness Fatigue'
There was the near-fisticuffs in 1995 between Thomas and then-Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), who was 75 at the time. The fracas -- which took place during a debate over Medicare legislation and in full view of reporters -- ended with Thomas screaming "Don't pull my tie." Gibbons denies grabbing for Thomas's tie.
"I don't have a proclivity for grabbing ties," says Gibbons, now 83. "I was actually trying to choke him." (Gibbons appears to be kidding.)
There was the House debate last year in which Thomas mocked a motion put forward by then-Rep. James Maloney (D-Conn.) as "Maloney baloney" and "a political dirty bomb." Democrats complained and Thomas said he was sorry, sort of. "I apologize," Thomas said on the floor. "This is not a political dirty bomb. It is political hot air."
There was the debate on a trade bill last year, when Thomas dismissed questions from Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) as "dumb and outlandish." Or the time -- during a period of relative bipartisanship after Sept. 11 -- when Thomas explained to the news media that it's easier to know what's going on in Sen. Tom Daschle's head than Rep. Richard Gephardt's, "because you'd bump into things" in Gephardt's head.
Or when Thomas was competing with Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) to become chairman of Ways and Means in 2001. "I do not believe we can successfully enact legislation with a committee chairman who issues dictums and imposes his own will," Crane wrote in a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Thomas has acknowledged the need to control his temper on several occasions. "I realize that to be chairman of the committee I can't be the Bill Thomas you're used to seeing on the committee," Thomas told House leaders shortly after he was named chairman. Several people in the room clapped.
It was against this backdrop that Thomas took to the House floor Wednesday to address the incident of the previous Friday. Staffers clustered around TVs to catch the action on C-SPAN. Would Thomas apologize? Would he tear up?
Both questions were settled within seconds. Thomas's voice broke through his entire two-minute speech. He was wrong to enlist Capitol Police to remove the Democrats from the library, he said. "I learned a very painful lesson Friday. As members, you deserve better judgment from me, and you'll get it."
His speech was met with good reviews but skepticism over whether it would have lasting impact. "He's always gonna be acerbic," says Armey. "He always used to tell me and Newt [Gingrich] and others that he was going to improve, to try to laugh and kid and so forth. But it's difficult for him. He gets some sort of Happiness Fatigue."
One Democrat who is not on Ways and Means says that he believes Thomas's apology was genuine, as was his vow to improve. "But that's what I said the last five times, also," the congressman adds.
When asked his view, Rangel laughs. "How many times have you said to your wife that you're sorry?" Rangel asks. "What does she say? She says, 'We'll just see what happens next time.' "
Claws and Effect
Bill Thomas loves animals. He has two dogs, a yellow lab (Jewel) and a pug (Wallace) at his home in Bakersfield. He also has a cat, a combination Siamese and Persian (Roux), and a stray dog (Fred, or "Freddie the Freeloader") that he took into his Washington home.
Thomas lovingly tells the story of Freddie, who showed up at his door one day but has since moved in with the neighbors across the street. "I worked up adoption papers so the neighbors would have responsibility for Fred," he says. Thomas's wife, Sharon, is now spending the bulk of her time in Bakersfield. Their two children, a son and a daughter, are both grown. And Thomas, given his schedule, can't take care of Fred on his own.
He brightens when he notes that the "doggie door" in the back of his home remains open. Fred occasionally comes over to visit.
"But I've officially and mentally turned him over to my friends," he says softly. His mouth curls into a warm smile.
Which becomes a grimace when Thomas is asked what this week has been like for him, "Every week is different," he says, squinting hard. "Therefore this is a different week.
Thomas has little patience for introspection, except to dispute the idea that he is complicated. "I'm really pretty simple," he says.
But he is, occasionally, prone to stunning bursts of public self-analysis. "I have a very big inferiority complex . . . so I tend to overcompensate," he told Congressional Quarterly in 2000. "I've done everything in my life to overcome that. The reaction people see in me is not ego-driven, it's inferiority driven."
Thomas grew up poor, first in Idaho, then Southern California. His father, a plumber and pipe fitter, struggled to find work. Neither Vincent Thomas nor his wife, Gertrude, graduated from high school. The family lived for a time in a government housing complex and was able to afford its first home -- in Orange County -- only after Vincent left for 18 months to take a job in Saudi Arabia.
Bill was the only son in a family of four children and the first member of his family to graduate from college. He received bachelor's and master's degrees from San Francisco State. He taught political science at Bakersfield Community College, spent four years in the California legislature and was elected to Congress in 1978. His district -- largely white, agricultural, with military bases -- has been solidly his own ever since.
He uses his intimidating style to his advantage. "There are times when Thomas is in front of a member, and maybe the member is too intimidated to raise questions," says Ed Kutler, a Republican lobbyist and a former aide to the GOP leadership. "That in itself is a form of victory."
When Thomas is asked whether he is bothered by the way in which he is portrayed, he waves his hand. "People inevitably have a single view," he says. And what people see -- mostly in a professional setting -- is a very limited view.
"This is my job," he says. "This isn't me. But they don't know me, they don't know who I am, they don't know who my friends are." His voice becomes louder and higher pitched. His face reddens and his jowls quiver. He is amazed, he says, at the comfort people take in ascribing motives to him. "Because that's fiction," he says. "People actually think that they're reporting when what they're really doing is writing fiction."
But isn't some of this fiction on videotape? Doesn't some of it air on C-SPAN?
"That's true," he says. "SUCH AS?"
The reporter mentions that the July 18 donnybrook was thoroughly documented. "That wasn't on C-SPAN," Thomas snaps. He smiles. Gotcha. "The cameras weren't in the room. And what happens is, the Democrats ran out to the press and told them what happened. There were very few first-eye accounts. No one checked with me. No one talked about the facts. No one was interested in getting a chronicling of the actual facts. But it was reported as though it was factual. That's what I'm talking about."
His voice grows loud again, his head bobs forward. This is not the conciliatory tone of the day before.
Nearly everyone has left the meeting except for a small clump of Thomas aides. They appear nervous, one suggesting that it's time to go. The reporter asks Thomas if there's anything he'd like to correct for the record about July 18.
"Sure, we will, in time," he says. Not now. He doesn't have the documents and the timeline available that will prove his case. "We'll deal with that," he promises, and turns to leave.
Then Thomas wheels around and engages in small talk, about newspapers, about baseball, about Washington, about the weather. "My biggest problem mentally is dealing with the humidity," he says.
He takes two steps toward the door, then pivots again.
"Do you like animals?" Thomas's voice is soft, almost plaintive. The reporter has two cats.
"Do you pull their claws," Thomas asks.
"Good." Thomas is in fervid opposition to declawing cats. "First of all, it's enormously painful. But you've disarmed an animal. . . . If it ever gets outside, it has no defenses. And cats tend to want to get out."
He is gaining a new wave of outrage. "It's so integral to how cats live," Thomas says. His lips quiver slightly, as if he might cry. "One of the saddest things is seeing a cat with no claws, kneading," he says.
Are Thomas's critics trying to declaw him?
"Sure, sure," he says, nodding. That's the effect of people spreading falsehoods. Or the attempted effect. Bad perceptions feed on themselves, especially in the media.
Which returns Thomas to the sore spot of when he gets up in the morning.
"You asked me, at 4:30, you did this, did that," Thomas says. "It just becomes rote." This falsehood, he suggests, is akin to other falsehoods spread about his temperament. "Is it a desire to repeat something to a point that it might diminish my ability?"
At which point the chairman yields the remainder of his time and closes his eyes. "I get up at times I need to get up based on what I have to do," he says, meandering toward the door, this time without stopping.
Leave it at this. Bill Thomas does not get up at 4:30 a.m., not always. It's more complicated than that.