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
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.
To wit, Schumer's Chinese lunch covers the following pu-pu platter of motifs:
* "Sweet 'N Low is made in Brooklyn," he says, eyeing the packets of sugar substitute on the table a few minutes after he is seated. "I'll tell you a good story about that." And he does.
* He doesn't care for the spring rolls at Hunan Dynasty but he loves the Szechwan shrimp, which the restaurant often comps him. "One thing I've learned," Schumer says, "is that when a restaurateur offers you something, provided it's modest, you don't turn it down. You insult him." Particularly at ethnic restaurants. "I have a story about this," Schumer says, which he tells. (It involves a carafe of wine at an Italian place in Brooklyn.)
* He scored "four 800s" on his SAT, he says, including two achievement tests.
* Schumer, whose suits are often wrinkled and ties are often askew, was dubbed one of the nation's "frumpiest" senators by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
* He shares quotes from Albert Einstein, Lord Tennyson and Justice Louis Brandeis, among others.
Schumer often interrupts his interruptions to make semantic distinctions about the words he uses. For instance, Schumer says he is occasionally "aggravated" by his reputation for being too hungry for media attention. "Actually 'annoyed' is the proper word," Schumer says. "Brooklynites say 'aggravated.' 'Aggravated' is what happens with a skin wound. If you scratch it, you aggravate it, make it worse. 'Annoyed' is more of a mental condition.
"Anyway, where were we?"
The media-hungry thing.
"I get annoyed by things," Schumer says. "But then I say, you're one lucky guy." He loves his job, his wife, Iris, and his two daughters, 16 and 20 (who he says accuse him of having "absolutely no gaydar"). They have a nice home in Park Slope and are vacationing together in England this week.
So, he goes a little overboard about getting media attention. "That should be the worst thing people say about me," Schumer says.
Like his conversational style, Schumer's approach to politics can wend in multiple directions. "He's a quick study on complex issues and he can translate that in a lot of places," says former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who served with Schumer in the House. "Chuck's instinct is to reach out for anything, and the problem is that sometimes he tries to touch too many issues." One peril of this is overexposure. Politicians should always watch that line, Panetta says, and Schumer is never far from it.
But Schumer has been effective, amassing a solid cache of legislative accomplishments in both chambers. A champion of gun control, he was the main House sponsor of the Brady Bill in 1993. He has been instrumental in securing funds for New York after 9/11 and won reelection with 71 percent of the vote last year.
"There's obviously a certain truth to every rap," says Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, referring to Schumer's reputation for spotlight-mongering. But at the same time, he works harder than most people, King says. "It's hard to get myself worked up about Schumer," King says. "If you add it all up, he's just a hard-working guy."
Schumer's father owned a small Brooklyn exterminating business, and the son is no Senate millionaire. He relies heavily on unpaid publicity.
He competes for attention on the Judiciary Committee with non-shrinking violets such as Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden. And he represents New York along with Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose photo on the wall at Hunan Dynasty is three times bigger than Schumer's. He once went to the restaurant with Clinton and much of the kitchen staff came out to greet her. "I had no idea the staff was so big," he recalls thinking while he waited for the fuss to subside.
It takes almost an hour for the conversation to return to Topic A. Schumer says he has met twice with Roberts -- once for an hour, once for 1 hour 15 minutes. They were good meetings, he says, and reminded him of late-night rumination sessions at Harvard Law School (which he attended in the early 1970s, a few years before Roberts). Schumer is still trying to determine whether Roberts is a "conservative ideologue," in which case he plans to vote against him. "He's a personable guy, but not a friendly guy," Schumer says, adding that he is "trying very hard to get to know Roberts" and "learn where he's coming from."
Just as important is for Roberts to learn where Schumer is coming from. "I wanted to tell him who I am and what motivates me on judges more than anything," Schumer says. He launches into a 10-minute retelling of what he says he told Roberts -- a zigzagging narrative of his own experience at Harvard College in the '60s, and how it left him "pro-authority" but "anti-ideologue."
Other matters are on his mind, too. Among them:
* "God has been good to me," Schumer says. "And yes, I believe in God." He goes on to explain that he believes in "an intervening God," as opposed to a God who simply "set the forces of the universe in motion" and let man determine his own fate.
* Schumer was raised as a Reform Jew, but admires modern Orthodoxy's "blend of modernity and tradition."
* Schumer appreciates the "blend of ethnic groups" of New York and the "blend of tastes" in Chinese food.
* His favorite ice cream flavor is coffee.
* President Bush calls Schumer "Ellis," the senator's middle name, inspired by the island.
Just One of the Guys
"Yeah, you want to hear a great story? Can I take a digression? I love America and this is a great American story."
The story is about how former CIA head George Tenet is from Queens and how Schumer encountered Tenet's mother sitting on a beach chair during a parade there a few years ago.
"He's honest with me," Schumer says of George Tenet. "That's one of the benefits of being a Brooklynite. You're a straight shooter with people, and people are straight back with you. And sometimes you offend people."
Being the son of an exterminator gives Schumer a rare bit of common ground with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a former exterminator. Schumer's locker is close to DeLay's in the House gym, and they chat about many things, Schumer says.
Schumer says his father hated his job. Schumer vowed that he would never work in a job that he didn't enjoy. He indulged a fascination with politics, which he developed in college, and was elected to the New York Assembly at age 23 and the U.S. Congress at 29, in 1980.
Since 1982, Schumer has lived in a group house on Capitol Hill with a changing group of congressmen and senators. People who have visited or lived in the D Street dwelling -- which currently houses Schumer, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and William Delahunt (D-Mass.) -- say that the place resembles a college crash pad, strewn with food and beverage containers, with bantering men sprawled in T-shirts, sometimes even boxer shorts.
"Actually, when we talk about policy, we put on suits and ties," Schumer adds, reassuring a grateful nation.
Schumer's sensibility is decidedly male. He often refers to "the guys" or "the boys" when discussing his staff, colleagues or roommates. At one point during lunch, Schumer turns to his press secretary, Risa Heller, and asks what "fraternity" she belonged to in college.
Schumer says that God has blessed him with unlimited energy and little need for sleep. He is fond of saying that he has four full-time jobs, which he lists: head of the DSCC; a member of the Democratic leadership team in the Senate; being a legislator in Washington ("which I love"); and serving the people of New York ("which I love").
"I'm a New Yorker," he says.
"Coulda fooled ya, huh?" Schumer says. "I know I come off like I'm from Kansas."
The waitress brings the check and fortune cookies. Schumer cracks his open, suspecting that the reporter at the table planted something embarrassing inside.
"Something like, 'You love the press too much,' " he says, smirking.
The fortune says something about his family being young and attractive.
Schumer urges the reporter to join him the next day on a tour of Upstate New York in a tiny Beechcraft Bonanza he has flown in since 1998. "All throwing up will be off the record," he promises.
"Anyway, where was I?" Schumer says, stepping onto the sidewalk.
Ellis has left the building.