MELVILLE, N.Y. — Because, seriously, there aren’t enough caucuses cluttering Capitol Hill, Rep. Steve Israel plans to start a new one this month. It’s tentatively called the Congressional Writers Caucus, because there’s another critical shortage in this country: politicians publishing books.
But in that crowded field, the Long Island politician and former two-term chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is surely an anomaly. Israel has authored neither a political tract/bid for higher office nor a memoir/bid for higher office. His offering is “The Global War on Morris,” a comic novel about Long Island and the war on terrorism that’s being released this week. In a Washington Post review, Book World editor Ron Charles called it “an unexpected delight,” written “in the full-tilt style of Carl Hiaasen.”
“Morris” may also be the only comic novel written by a member of Congress that’s dedicated to Dick Cheney. (As well as Israel’s late father who, the dedication reads, “didn’t particularly care for” the former vice president.)
Also, written entirely on a cellphone.
Yes, truly. Israel, sitting in a choice booth at a popular diner in his district, takes out his iPhone to show an incredulous visitor the first few chapters, plus the epilogue, of a second novel.
“Parodies, in particular, are a wonderful way of dealing with the insanity of Washington,” says Israel, 56. “Instead of screaming and yelling on the floor of the House, I like to work it out as parody.”
He adds, “If you’re a member of Congress and can’t find the humor in yourself, then you need to find another job.” Which may help explain why so many members recently left.
Writing satire may well have been an antidote to chairing the DCCC during Obama’s second term, as the president’s numbers sank southward and everyone anticipated major losses for his party in the midterms.
“I was tempered by being able to sit with this and start writing,” says Israel, who will be reading from his novel at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore on Wednesday night. “Anybody who has an intense job has some sort of release. Some people have yoga, or go to the gym. My release was writing about everything I’d seen during the day.” Trim despite a lunch of a Hamburger Delight (french fries and onion rings), Israel seems to be able to do without the gym.
He wrote the novel in the midst of his own challenging election. In 2012, “Obama barely won this district. This is not a slam-dunk Democratic district,” says Israel, first elected to the House in 2000. “This is a new district that became more Republican.” So he made sure to be home every weekend.
The bunker-like Sweet Hollow Diner is on Route 110 in Melville, down the road from Estelle’s Dressy Dresses and what arguably may be the discount furniture center of the Eastern seaboard. In the next booth, two women are speaking in what Israel calls pure “Lawn Guylish,” spraying a sewer of invective and obscenities, noteworthy in that they are apparently schoolteachers.
“What can I say?” Israel says, beaming like a proud father.“These are my people!”
A diner, along with much of Long Island, figures prominently in “Morris,” which takes place between 2004 and 2012. But it’s a fictional diner. During visits home to New York’s 3rd District, Israel makes sure to rotate meals so as to not play favorites. “You can’t spend too much time in one diner and pizza place. So it’s Diner Diplomacy, and Pizza Parity,” he says.
Israel long dreamed of being a novelist. (Also a congressman and an outfielder for the Mets, so two out of three isn’t bad.) He began writing “Morris” in 2006, initially on a BlackBerry, before Washington underwent an iPhone conversion.
“I would go to these meetings with senior members of the Bush administration, including President Bush, and hear the most absurd things,” Israel says. “I would be very frustrated because I knew if I reported these things in a congressional newsletter, no one would believe me.” So fiction became an outlet. “As chair of the DCCC, if I had to give three or four speeches during the day and had to raise a ton of money in Milwaukee, I would go back to the hotel and write. My balance was writing.”
The spark for “Morris” came when Israel learned that the NSA had accidentally done surveillance on a group of Quakers, one of those Washington moments that transcends fiction.
“If it’s happening to this group of elderly Quakers, it has to be happening to other people,” Israel recalls thinking. “That night I went home to my apartment in Washington and created Morris Feldstein,” a meek, Walter Mitty-like pharmaceutical salesman. “Because I don’t know about elderly Quakers, but I do know about Jewish guys on Long Island, whose whole philosophy is, don’t get into trouble.”
Morris gets into trouble. During the course of the novel, he grapples with a terrorist towel attendant, an all-knowing government supercomputer with a mind of its own, a seedy Long Island motel (and possibly fiction’s shortest-lived affair) and the Guantanamo Bay prison, as well as being a pawn of Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and, Israel’s improbable muse, Dick Cheney. “Morris” quotes entire passages of Cheney’s 2004 national convention speech linking terrorism to politics — to comic effect.
While presidents Bush and Obama remain mostly offstage, an unnamed New York senator, “perpetually pancaked” and “psychologically incapable of declining any request that involved a camera,” makes a late yet notable entrance. Israel claims that the character is “a composite of all senators.”
Uh, no, he isn’t.
So far, Israel has heard no response from Sen. Charles E. Schumer.
He has heard from Hillary Clinton, though. The former New York senator isn’t mentioned in the novel, but she told Israel that she’s reading it after listening to her husband’s abundant laughter. During the last weeks of the midterm campaign, Bill Clinton phoned Israel, who assumed that it was to drill him on DCCC efforts. Instead, the congressman recalls, “he spent 10 minutes praising the characters in the book.”
Israel originally met with literary agent David Kuhn to pitch a book on America’s middle class. “If you don’t like my nonfiction,” Israel told Kuhn, “let me tell you about my novel.” After 90 seconds, Kuhn’s hands shot into the air. “Tell me about your novel,” he asked.
Impressed with the manuscript, Kuhn sent a copy to Simon & Schuster’s Ben Loehnen. “I was worried that it would be flat-footed and a work of vanity,” Loehnen recalls. “Instead of writing a soporific and sycophantic memoir, he’s written a satire that’s critical and alive and intelligent.” Also, the editor notes, “any writer who can make a supercomputer into an unforgettable character deserves readers.”
Lauren Sharp, Israel’s co-agent in Washington, says that the main prep work she did on the manuscript was paring back some of the jokes: “The original manuscript was so chock-a-block with humor, it was easy to get distracted. Mostly, we were trimming every fourth joke to let the other three shine through a little more.”
Former representative Bob Mrazek, for whom Israel worked as an aide on the Hill, left Congress in 1993 to return to his first career as a writer. He has published seven works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as writing and co-directing the independent feature “The Congressman.” And he’s “absolutely astonished at what Steve’s done. It’s typical that most authors need a good deal of free time to think about characters. Being in Congress you’re at work all day, plus Steve was chair of the DCCC, which can mean an 18-hour day. I don’t know how he was able to focus all his creative forces.” Particularly on a satirical novel. “It’s too hard. It requires a very fine balance, a very fine calibration of the absurd and the believable.”
Moreover, politics is noisy, while writing generally demands quiet. “Congress is very extroverted, and writing is a very introverted lifestyle,” Israel says. The father of two grown daughters who’s in the midst of a second divorce, he writes most mornings for an hour. He also writes on planes, trains and automobiles on the way to campaign events. Hence the iPhone as instrument of choice. It’s always there, “molded to my hand.”
As a member of Congress, Israel is barred from accepting an advance, a rule put in place after Newt Gingrich’s original $4.5 million advance for two books in 1994 (talk about a contract with America!) was whittled to a token $1 after critics suggested that the incoming speaker was profiting from that year’s Republican congressional victory. Any money Israel makes from “Morris” will come from royalties, which are generally negligible for a first novel.
Beyond the book, Israel has contributed a comic piece to the New Yorker and recently launched a twice-monthly column, Kings of the Hill, for the Huffington Post, for which, like so many contributors to that Web site, he will receive not a cent. His second novel, “Big Guns,” is about the gun lobby and has been accepted by Simon & Schuster, pending ethics committee approval. A conservative member of Congress features in the book. Israel says that he isn’t based on any real politician. Really? “Well, maybe a former member of Congress.”
Over the years it took to produce, “Morris” remained Israel’s private endeavor. It came as a surprise even to Rep. Adam Schiff, Israel’s closest friend in Congress. “I was shocked,” says the California Democrat. “We are so close, and we never talked about it. I walk into his office one day and there’s a galley proof.”
Schiff, whose district includes Hollywood, where of course everyone is working on a screenplay, is working on a screenplay. A thriller. He’s also writing a novelization of the screenplay. Israel and Schiff are cosponsors of the Congressional Writers Caucus, which will invite authors, agents and editors to address politicians working on novels and screenplays.
Soon, Capitol Hill could resemble certain quarters of Brooklyn or Los Angeles. Instead of mentioning their latest bills, members of Congress will inquire, “Have you read my novel? Would you like to see my screenplay?”
Hollywood, as it happens, is interested in “Morris.” Israel has taken meetings. He would love to see Larry David play his hero.
This being the entertainment business, however, folks have other ideas. Oh, and they’d like to suggest a few changes.
Whatever. Anything is fine with Israel. He’s a published author.
“My best hope,” he says, smiling in his diner booth, “has actually, and blessedly, been realized, with the publisher accepting my second book.”