Nebraska Nice/Nebraska Naive: or Mrs. Fischer Goes to Washington or Life: Understood Backwards

July 16, 2012


Nebraska nice. Nebraska naïve. Most Cornhuskers would agree that those “n” words are applicable to a lot of the state’s residents. Of course, there’s also Nebraska Nasty but let’s not dwell on that negative now.

I thought of the first two phrases when I attended Senator Deb Fischer’s maiden fund-raiser in Washington, D.C. and overheard a whispered exchange between her host, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, and Fischer, as he was seconds away from introducing her to the small crowd.

Fortenberry leaned into Fischer’s ear and said, “You don’t mind if I tell them, do you?” She simply smiled and nodded as if to say, “Sure. Go ahead.”

Then, Fortenberry opened with – and I cannot say verbatim because I didn’t record it – something closely along these lines, “Senator Fischer visited the Senate and was surprised to find it empty except for the immediate speaker. She said to me, “Jeff, the Senators are speaking on the Senate floor to no one. We should be having vigorous debate about the country’s critical issues with Senators in attendance.’”

Fortenberry paused for effect: “Then, Senator Fischer said to me: ‘Jeff, we’ve got to change that.’”

I kinda wanted to call out, “Ummm, yeah. Good luck with that.”

If Washington, D.C. was/were (whatever) a ship, it’d be an Olympic-size barge – filled with decades of collected garbage that no one wants to mess with or can handle logistically– that’s near impossible to move. Barges behave like glaciers. But they’re hot and smelly. In other words, Change in D.C. It ain’t gonna happen. Ever.

The idea that a couple members of Nebraska’s Congressional delegation could realistically alter the United States Senate is a fanciful one. Is Senator Fischer right? Of course, but what’s right is not popular in our nation’s Capital and what’s popular is – sadly – so often not right.

Senator Fischer’s D.C. debut also kicked in memories of my 1977 introduction to Washington, D.C. where I moved from Omaha to join newly-elected Rep. John Cavanaugh’s Capitol Hill staff in the Cannon House Office Building as a “Legislative Assistant” and yes, I put that job title in air quotes for a reason but more on that later.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that Congress was corrupt. On a Rod Blagojevich scale, sure, it wasn’t a ten at that point, but nonetheless as Dan Rostenkowski’s Post Office scandal later showed, the place was pretty much a small-town den of iniquity even in the late seventies.

And remember, “The Last Plantation” was run by Democrats. Specifically, Congressman Tip O’Neill, who took an instant liking to Nebraska’s new, red-haired, Irish-American, 31 year-old which catapulted John swiftly into D.C.’s Democratic in-crowd.

New staffers barely had time to step onto the hallowed marble Halls of Congress, when we were told that we could have artwork framed in the House basement by world-class framers. I didn’t get that. Even then. Why should we get such a perk, I wondered. It did not seem “right.”

To add fuel to the framing fire, seasoned Democratic staffers would brag: “What you do is, you buy pictures, posters, anything, for your home but you hang them in your office for a while, and then you take them home and Voila! You’ve saved yourself expensive framing costs.”

My response: “But wait, why should taxpayers pay for Capitol Hill staffers – or “Members” for that matter – to have their pictures framed?” For all I know, the House picture-framing shop is still there and the same m.o. exists.

Then, there was the day that John Cavanaugh, who served on the International Relations Committee, came home to a stunning, mucho-dinero Persian rug delivered by – you guessed it – The Shah of Iran. I didn’t see the card but I think it said, “The Shah of Iran.” Of course, Cavanaugh – being an ethical Congressman –  sent it back but just think how many Members didn’t. Probably lots.

And so it went. Little “corrupting” events like that. Day in and day out in D.C.

Looking back, I now understand the extent to which those surprising political epiphanies blind-sided all of us “Mr. Mrs. & Ms. Cornhuskers Go to Washington” naïve Nebraskans. Like the rest of the crew, I believed all the lofty stuff I learned from my brilliant UN-L Political Science professors Robert Sittig, Phil Dyer, and the rest.

My best advice to all political optimists out there: No one– and I repeat – no one will ever succeed in changing Washington, (it just gets worse); ergo, the rationale for remaining in the pointless political arena is to simply channel Mother Teresa (paraphrasing here) who said, “Life’s goal is not necessarily to be successful but to be faithful to the cause.”

To that end, Keep the Faith, folks cuz that’s all there is.

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