From the Archives: How To Date a Congressman
If you have a taste for Merlot, enjoy a good fraternity party, and don’t mind beepers, you may want to go courting on Capitol Hill.
Election Night 1994: The nation’s voters control my future tonight. I sit in front of the television watching the returns. Pen in hand, I update my candidate checklist as percentages flash across the screen. My boys. I know their names. I know their parties. I know their marital status.
With 435 House seats up for grabs, surely there must be a winning bachelor in the bunch. A handsome, intelligent, energetic pol who’s got a hint of presidential potential. Democrat, Republican, I’m not choosy. Just give me a member of the House who’s looking for a home.
Some girls might sniff at House members and turn to the more aristocratic Senate. I know better. JFK started out in the humbler chamber, along with Thomas Jefferson, George Bush, Abraham Lincoln, and 23 other presidents. They an tied the knot before they ran for the presidency.
With all returns in, my map reflects a grim cartography: The 104th Congress is very married. In the freshman class there are just seven bachelors: six Republican and a Democrat.
Over the next few weeks, I follow coverage of my bachelors as they attend freshman orientation and are sworn in. Finally, I pick up the phone. Prospective date number one: Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island. This is the biggie. A real Kennedy. (Flash forward to Hyannis Port, sailing off the coast, Maria Shriver and me sunbathing with my puppy, Sophie, at my side, Arnold mixing G&Ts.)
Born in 1967, Teddy’s youngest never met his uncle Jack. At the tender age of 27—I am 28—Patrick is the youngest member of Congress. My hand is shaking. Kennedy’s press secretary is on the line. No, the congressman would not be interested in lunch, or dinner, or even a cup of coffee. “He just wants to go to Washington and blend in with the others and not be a celebrity.” But isn’t he interested in a nice Midwestern Irish-Catholic girl who’s got a Jackie 0 sense of the aesthetic?
Rejected by the sole Dem, I figure to hell with the powerless minority. I’ve got grand plans for the GOP. And do they deliver! Accommodating press secretaries- who know their bachelor bosses wouldn’t mind being courted by a journalist-schedule lunch dates, dinner dates, and drink dates with five of the freshmen. I stuff my suitcase with Nancy Reagan red suits and country-club pastels. One great date and it could be farewell New York City pavements, hello the Rose Garden.
• • •
My first date begins with a wine-tasting party hosted by the first congressional vintner since Thomas Jefferson, California’s George Radanovich. When I see him I need to steady myself. Unblemished as a baby’s bottom, blushes of rosy health rise on his creamy white cheeks. His hair is chestnut and his blue eyes so innocent, I’m gone. I silently thank Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase and feel myself flushing the color of my red mohair jacket. And I haven’t even sipped the wine.
The room fills with journalists, United Nations diplomats, lobbyists, a CNBC film crew, and men with enameled red pins on their lapels—congressmen.
A severe-looking, raven-haired woman walks in. The party hushes and parts, allowing her a path to the congressman. “That’s Robin Dole, Bob Dole’s daughter,” gushes an aide. The crowd is clearly impressed by her appearance. Radanovich is connected: Bob Dole campaigned for him, and he sits on the House Budget Committee.
Bottle after bottle of wine is consumed, and the level of merriment rises. “Hey, turn it up,” shouts J.D. Hayworth, an Arizona Republican. He’s referring to the TV that’s tuned to C-SPAN and the dronings of Illinois Republican Henry Hyde. The freshmen huddle around the monitor, popping wads of sourdough bread and Brie into their mouths, emptying their glasses, opining about Bill Kristol and Frank Luntz, who spoke to their class that morning.
An elegant woman of a certain age takes me into her confidence. “By the end of this year, some of these bachelors will be married,” she whispers. “Just you wait and see. It’s too hard to be single and in Congress.”
My spirits soar. Then she tells me how women have been flocking round Radanovich. After a recent party, he had 15 cards in his pocket- all from women.
Tonight, he’s mine. With his unbuttoned navy topcoat flapping in the wind, the congressman and I step into the night.
At the restaurant i Ricchi, I sense that Radanovich is not accustomed to being a congressman. When greeted, he nods shyly. But no ceremony will be spared by our waiter, who happens to be a wine enthusiast from California.
The congressman scans the wine list. “Do you have any California wines?”
“No, just Italian,” the waiter replies.
“Hmmmmmm,” Radanovich hesitates. “I was looking for a Merlot.”
“This is perfect, sir,” the waiter says, pointing to a 1989 Brunello. Gulp. I see the $58 price tag. Radanovich looks at me. “Is that okay with you?”
The waiter uncorks the wine and pours a bit for the congressman, who expertly lifts the glass by its stem, swirls the wine, and sniffs the bouquet once, twice. “That’s fine,” he says.
But the waiter doesn’t budge, and the congressman listens politely as he pours out his life story.
Finally waiterless, we chat, and my first impression of a naif is confirmed. Radanovich, 40, grew up in Mariposa, population 1,700, where everyone knew everyone, and his father ran a clothing store. Number five of eight, he’s a Roman Catholic of Croatian/English descent. He entered politics after founding the Radanovich Winery, but he still feels more comfortable in jeans picking grapes than in a suit sitting behind a desk.
He confesses to driving the congressional car over to Hecht’s that afternoon to buy a new tie because of our date tonight. While selecting one, his beeper went off, and he had to dash to the cashier, then to the House floor.
The long days that Congress is spending on the Contract with America appear to be taking their toll. As we eat, I notice that Radanovich ‘s eyes are pink and squinting. Damn. Here’s the waiter again: “My mother is visiting, and I want to take her on a White House tour. Could you get us tickets?”
We agree it’s time to leave. In the cab, our wool coats are rubbing. After an awkward pause, I extend my hand. “Thank you, Congressman. I had a lovely evening.”
“No, thank you,” he says, slightly flustered, and he’s off.
He never said, “Call me George.”
• • •
The next day I’m back on the Hill, this time for some Southern hospitality: lunch with South Carolina and drinks with Florida.
South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham extends his hand and greets me with a lovely drawl. He doesn’t look like a congressman. Where’s the self-conscious poise? Standing about 5 foot 8, he has ivory skin, pale blue eyes, and graying brown hair. His plain face transforms when he smiles. You might not notice this man in a crowd until he opens his mouth. Graham’s tongue is fast and bold.
Seneca, population 7,436, is home. Agriculture and textiles dominate his district, as do Southern Baptists. “There are more Southern Baptists per capita in my district than any other in the country,” he says, himself one. No smoking, no drinking, but the church league softball games are less than holy, he says.
I’ve gone from wine to water.
Motioning to leave, Graham touches the small of my back, and I arch slightly. I’m not used to Southern gentility. Alex, an aide, accompanies us, gently guiding the congressman—who’s preoccupied with the morning’s defeat of the three-fifths rule on the balanced budget amendment—onto the correct elevator, out the correct door.
Graham’s parents died when he was 20, leaving him to raise his 13-year-old sister. He put both of them through school—he going from the bottom half of his high school class to earning a law degree. In the Air Force he served as a chief prosecutor in Europe, pursuing espionage cases and court-martials. “It was the perfect life for a bachelor,” he says. “Germany during the week, Rome on the weekend.” A Lufthansa stewardess is mentioned in passing. A former sweetheart, I gather.
Tableside at Head’s, a barbecue restaurant, Graham, 39, orders a chicken pasta salad. He’s gained 15 pounds since his campaign. ”I’m gonna start playing tennis with Steve Largent,” he says. “I’m gonna kick his butt.”
Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. The congressman feels for his pager, lifts it to his ear. “A message from the Republican cloakroom,” I hear. “Members have 15 minutes to record their vote on HR …”
He looks at Alex, “I gotta go?” Alex nods yes.
“Okay, I gotta go vote. Y’all stay here and eat. I’ll be back,” he says. “If you’re ever elected to Congress, I recommend buying a pair of Rockports.”
Thirty minutes later, coatless and breathless, Graham reappears. He relaxes over lunch, dismissing Newt’s reading list with the wave of a fork. “Newt reads too many books,” he says. “If you want to know about politics, don’t read books. Get out there with the people.” Despite all his talk, when pressed, Graham admits that a Martin Luther King biography and George Wallace’s autobiography are on his night table.
After lunch, the congressman looks at me. I notice crumbs on his face. “Wanna see my apartment?” he asks.
His apartment? So soon?
Graham lives with Van Hilleary, a Tennessee Republican, with whom I have a date next week.
“Where do you live in New York?” he asks.
“Aren’t there a lot of communists there?”
I look to see if he’s joking. I’m not sure.
Walking up the path of the red, black-shuttered townhouse, he points to a dead cluster of weeds. “There’s my garden.”
Inside, I’m impressed with the eclectic antiques and full bookshelves. “That all came with it ,” he says. The only signs of male life are several remote controls tossed on the sofa alongside a windbreaker. “I don’t have anything that I have to water or feed.” On the floor rest shrink-wrapped telephone books. In the kitchen, a box of Cheerios and a half-eaten loaf of Pepperridge Farm whole wheat bread sit on the counter. “I’d take you upstairs, but there’s a lot of underwear on the floor.”
On the weekends, he returns to his new 2,000-square-foot house in Seneca. “I’ve asked orne ladies to decorate it,” he says.
Despite his apparent contentment with bachelorhood, I sense a yearning for marriage and a family. I’m shocked when he asks me how many children I want to have.
Back at Longworth I shake Graham’s hand. “Thank you, Congressman. It was a lovely lunch.”
“No. Lindsey. Call me Lindsey. Stop in next time you’re in town.”
• • •
It’s the 5 o’clock cocktail hour, and I’m mounting the steps to Le Mistral the congressional power eatery.
“Sallie?” I hear behind me.
Running up the steps, Mark Foley extends extends a hearty handshake.
Ooh Ia Ia. This congressman is a blast of exuberance. Tall and solid with sparkling blue eyes and subtly coiffed hair, his wire-framed glasses lend authority to his round face. Impeccably tailored in a Prince Charles plaid Joseph Abboud suit and a French blue shirt, he’s got a real Palm Beach polish, although his district skirts that elite community.
We mount a couple of high-backed stools, and I marvel at the privacy of our date. Not only is the bar empty but the entire restaurant. The congressman orders a glass of Merlot. I follow suit, wondering if Newt’s got something going with Merlot in the Contract.
Foley, 40, has been a Florida politician since he was 23. State and local governments were steppingstones to his childhood dream of a congressional seat. Half Polish, half Irish, he grew up in West Palm Beach in a close-knit family. He points to a young dishwasher behind the bar, unloading glasses. “I’ve done that. And I’ve been a waiter and an owner,” Foley says, referring to a former restaurant venture.
Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. “Oh, God,” he says. “Message from the Republican cloakroom … 15 minutes to record their vote …”
He’s off, coatless, into the dusk.
Twenty minutes later, he’s back, breathless. Once again, the sprint-for-the-vote leads to the issue of footwear. “I love these Allen-Edmonds,” Foley says. He also loves clothes, confessing a passion for Bill Robinson and Neiman Marcus shirts: ”American-made.”
We polish off our Merlot.
Another? He hesitates, I insist, he agrees.
Foley’s Palm Beach politicking has given him some pretty heady contacts. It’s no wonder that he needs to keep one tuxedo in Washington and another in Florida.
“I bumped into Joe Kennedy the other day, and he said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go fishing sometime,’ ” Foley remarks.
“Is the Kennedy compound in your district?” I ask, fingers crossed. Fishing will, no doubt, lead to sailing. Who needs Patrick?
“No, but it used to be,” he answers.
Workable. Not only is this fellow connected, but judging from his easy manner and relaxed laughter, he’s happy.
“I was at the party for the opening of Mar-a-Lago,” Foley continues, launching into another story. “Miss Germany was my date and … “
“Miss Germany?” I interrupt. I’m wondering about this trend of freshmen congressmen and German women.
“Yes, Miss Germany,” he continues, “and Donald Trump rushes over to me and asks if there’s anything I can do about his air space,” Foley says, waving his hands over his head, mimicking The Donald imitating flight patterns. “He said the air traffic over Mar-a-Lago was terrible, and he wanted to know if I could change it.”
Foley clearly is on the move, and not just because of his social contacts. He was appointed deputy majority whip and sits on key committees.
In his downtime Foley heads to the sea or the slopes—he shares a condo in Aspen. Of all of his classmates, Foley seems the most capable of balancing his life and work—he even lives off-campus: “Capitol Hill is too claustrophobic.”
“Where do you live?”
“The Watergate!” I repeat, relishing the chill I get when it rolls off my tongue.
Foley raves about the conveniences of the Watergate: the Safeway, the Chinese take-out, the dry cleaner, the wine selection. He admits that long days often end with loneliness, so far from home and close friends. Eager to start entertaining again, he’s looking for an apartment with a fireplace where he can host dinner parties.
Pick me up off the floor.
“But what’s fun about the Watergate is the star-studded group there,” he continues. “Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Caspar Weinberger.”
My chest tightens. I must get Sophie into obedience classes. Mid-dinner party I can see her tugging on Dole’s suit cuff, leaping up and tearing Bader Ginsburg’s pantyhose.
Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. Again, the blasted beeper. He helps me into my coat and offers a wann handshake.
“Thank you, Congressman.”
“Mark. Call me Mark.”
• • •
A week later, I find myself staring at a congressman who’s as cute as a button. It’s 8:30PM at Bullfeathers, and I’m Van Hilleary’s last agenda entry. With soft blond hair atop a perfectly symmetrical face, cobalt eyes and dimples, he may look like a choirboy, but I doubt he’s chaste. Poise he has aplenty, carrying his navy pinstripes like a military man. He’s smart, cultured, intense, with a touch of childishness.
Hilleary, 35, navigated C-130s during the Gulf War. With relish, he recounts missions over Kuwait. “Flyin’ the line,” he says. “That was the best time of my life.”
Home is Spring City, Tennessee, population 2,000. Before the war he went to law school and after worked for his family’s textile company.
Rapid fire, he quizzes me on my politics, tossing in a couple of Contract with America lectures.
The good-ole-boy charm is going full tilt now as he brags about his little riverside house. “You should come and visit. I’ll take you to the mountains and the waterfalls.”
A gaggle of Southern congressmen surround our table. They’re slapping Hilleary on the back and teasing him. “You’re always with a pretty young woman, Van,” one of them says.
When I walk out of the ladies room, I notice the waiter passing Hilleary a pen-scrawled napkin. “Wanna go to the Monocle?” he asks.
Now we’re talking. The Monocle is an extension of the Senate cloakroom. Good sign. He’s interested in the Senate.
The Monocle does not disappoint. I inhale delicious wafts of cigar smoke-eau de power. Signed photographs of the big boys: Lloyd Bentsen, AI D’Amato, George Mitchell line the walls above leather banquettes. But it’s 11 PM, and Washington being Washington, the restaurant is empty except for a cluster laughing at the bar. Hilleary orders a pair of Scotch and sodas.
Thank God, a respite from Merlot.
It looks like we’re closing the Monocle.
• • •
But the night’s not over. I wonder what he’s got up his sleeve. It’s midnight, and we’re walking to the Capitol when we notice the glowing Washington Monument.
“I’ve been told that I have a great view of the Washington Monument from my apartment,” Hilleary says.
Funny, I was in his place last week and never noticed the Washington Monument.
We enter the belly of the Capitol. Forklifts droning, floor waxers whizzing. Next thing I know, I’m on the floor of the House of Representatives. The congressman is in his element, giving the grand tour.
“Newt’s chair,” he says pointing, as a tour guide would point out the Empire State Building.
The enormous high-backed brown leather chair looks even larger than it does on C-SPAN. Should I sit in it? Twirl around in it?
Hilleary is at the door to the Republican cloakroom. I wait for him to step inside, and I do it. I sit in Newt’s chair.
“Wanna see the cloakroom?” he yells from inside.
“Sure,” I yell, bolting out of the chair.
The air in the cloakroom doesn’t seem to have moved since 1954, the last time the Republicans were in control. They certainly haven’t changed the decor. Brown leather sofas abound, piled with folded sheets and blankets, “for some of the older members,” Hilleary says with a knowing chuckle. Telephones, floor ashtrays, and CSPAN monitors are everywhere. “Tuna sandwiches and soup,” Hilleary says dejectedly as we pass the commissary. “We eat a lot of meals here.”
Next stop: Hilleary’s office, where he picks up his schedule. It seems the congressman’s day starts in six hours with a 7:30 AM prayer breakfast. “Wanna go to that?” he asks, pointing at an evening reception.
My God, a congressman just asked me out.
“Congressman?” we suddenly hear. A woman in a cleaning uniform appears. “Oh Congressman, I saw the door open and I, I thought somebody broke in. I’m sorry …”
“No, Sylvia, it’s just me,” Hilleary drawls, introducing us.
“It’s hard to keep these offices clean,” she says. “Especially the freshmen. I’ve been trying to keep them clean, but …”
I ask her if it’s true that some live in their offices.
“We’ve got three upstairs, one down the hall, and one has one of those beds that folds down from the wall—and I walked in on one in his underwear,” she says, shaking her head.
In a cab outside of the townhouse where I know Representative Graham is fast asleep, I look at Hilleary in the moonlight, he at me.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says.
“Thank you, Congressman,” I say, extending my hand. “I had a wonderful time.”
“Thank you,” he says stiffly, jumping out of the cab.
Damn. He never said, “Call me Van.”
• • •
“This is it,” Van Hilleary says as we stand side by side on the street. “This is a VFW hall,” I respond dubiously.
“That’s right,” he says, and we walk into something like a 1980s fraternity party. The National Restaurant Association and the National Beer Wholesalers Association are sponsoring a reception. Folding tables offer make-it-yourself tacos and cans of beer. The crowd is young: Lots of legislative aides eating dripping tacos and suited women drinking beer out of the can.
We barely have our “Hello My Name Is” tags peeled and, suddenly, it’s attack of the flacks. One after another they close in on Hilleary.
“Our franchisees love you, congressman!” Ms. McDonald’s Corporation chirps.
“You really should go through our factory that’s in your district,” Ms. T.R.W. insists.
Hilleary handles them beautifully.
A frantic congressman grabs Hilleary. “Van, we’ve gotta vote. Did you hear your beeper? Doc Weldon’s [a Republican from Florida] got a car here.”
We pile into a white Chrysler. Doctor Weldon’s behind the wheel, another congressman is up front, and I’m squished between Hilleary and tomorrow’s lunch date, Illinois’ Jerry Weller.
Congressmen are pouring into the Capitol. Hilleary explains that line-item veto amendments are coming up tonight. He votes and takes me up to the gallery.
Last night’s silent floor is ablaze with lights and teeming with members. Debate is underway. I scan the floor and a full stop. There he is. Seated in the first row, leaning forward, chin on his hand, I spot the hook nose, the wheat-colored hair, the aura. I nudge Hilleary. “Is that Patrick Kennedy?” I ask a little too breathlessly.
Hilleary says it’s going to be a long night. I see where this is going. It’s not easy dating a congressman. I decide to play a little hard to get.
Hilleary walks me to the Members Only elevator. No time for long good-byes.
“Thank you, again, Congressman.”
“Call me Van,” he says as the gold doors close.
• • •
It’s Friday lunchtime, and Jerry Weller gives me a very formal handshake and asks if I would mind eating in the Members’ dining room. Mind? This is a congressional spouse-aspirant’s dream come true.
The high-ceilinged dining room buzzes, tables packed, a sea of lapel pins. Weller is all business, discussing the site for Chicago’s third airport, his eyes never leaving my face.
We order iced teas. Rolls appear that I fear are remnants from the 103rd. I break one, and dust tumbles onto my plate. Weller orders the “Cold Special”—a curried chicken salad and cup of Manhattan clam chowder. I opt for the Members’ chicken salad, which looks like an escaped sculpture from the Hirshhorn: an enormous piece of matzo planted in chicken salad on mesclun greens. There isn’t a martini or a rare porterhouse in the room. Lots and lots of salads in this lean Republican majority.
Weller, 37, sits on the prestigious House Republican Steering Committee and is an assistant majority whip. In 1976, when Illinois Representative Tom Corcoran rode through Weller’s hometown in a parade, Weller chased him, volunteered for his campaign, and ended up in Washington, where later he worked for Reagan’s agriculture secretary. Agriculture was a natural for a boy raised on his parents’ fifth-generation farm.
“I’m a Roosevelt Republican,” he says. “Teddy is one of my heroes.”
Oh, bully. If there ever was a real man, it was TR. I wonder if Weller can read in five languages and has a penchant for bison hunting.
At the age of 28, Weller learned a political lesson. He had made it to the Illinois statehouse by four votes, but after 114 days in office, the Democratic majority called a recount, and he lost his seat.
“When I was introduced to Carol Moseley-Braun, she said, ‘Happy to meet you,’ and I said, ‘We’ve met before. On April 4, 1987, you voted to unseat me from the house. I told you then that I would be back, and here I am,’ ” Weller says, his aqua eyes flashing with satisfaction.
With fine-boned features and slightly receding strawberry-blond hair, Weller looks his Dutch/German ancestry. He definitely has the German work ethic. His days begin at 7:30 AM and go until 9 PM. “My front door is 40 feet from my office building,” he says. “It’s completely barren except for a bed. I need to buy a beanbag chair and a TV. I’ve never put anything in my refrigerator.”
Weller is relaxed now, smiling and pleased that he wasn’t called for a vote. He thanks me three times for lunch.
“No, thank you, Congressman,” I say, thinking that this was the most congressional date of all- it took place entirely in the Capitol.
He waves as I walk away. He never said, “Call me Jerry.”
• • •
Two weeks later, Congressman Radanovich’s press secretary calls. The congressman wants me to accompany him to a private dinner hosted by the Croatian Ambassador to the United Nations. It’s in New York.
What to wear, what to do, what do I know about Croatia? I photocopy encyclopedias. I tear through my closet.
At work, coiffed and ready, I’ve spent the entire day boring my colleagues with anecdotes about Croatia under Tito, when the phone rings at 4:45 PM. It’s Radanovich’s press secretary: “Sallie, I’ve got some bad news. There’s a vote on the death-penatly amendment tonight, and the congressman can’t get away. He’s really sorry. We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
I call my mother. She says that’s what you get for going after congressmen.
This article appears in the July 1995 issue of The Washingtonian.