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Congressional Playboy

Jennifer Whitson, a press aide to Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), felt a little bit self-conscious about purchasing the latest issue of Playboy magazine over the July Fourth weekend.

The clerk at a Chicago airport gave the young staffer the once over, leading Whitson to quickly explain, “Oh, my boss is in there.”

Indeed, there is a photo of a pensive-looking Rangel in the September issue of the pornographic magazine, but it’s accompanying the classy and (relatively) serious 20 Questions feature. In fact, in the photo Rangel is fully dressed — and looking as distinguished as always.

But one warning: His feature appears between a story headlined “Centerfolds on Sex” that answers such raging questions as “My Favorite Encounter” and a nude spread of the winner of “Survivor: Amazon,” Jenna Morasca, and her “jungle pal” Heidi Strobel.

When asked about a Rangel-like character on “West Wing,” the lawmaker responded with a Rangelism. “I don’t know where they’re going with this damn Congressman they got,” he said. “But maybe if he ends up being appointed to the presidency like Bush, we could work out something.”

Then there’s Rangel holding forth on building a firewall between church and state. “Someone on the House floor said that Israel belongs to the Jews because they’re supposed to be holding on to it for Jesus Christ’s return,” he recalled. “Representative Barney Frank [D-Mass.] said to me, ‘What you don’t understand, Charlie, is that when your Jesus gets to our Israel and finds out how much we Jews charged for rent while he’s gone, he is not going to want to be there.’”

The veteran of the Korean War also has a pedestrian way of explaining his support of “pre-emptive” military strikes.

“If there’s some guy around the corner with a pipe, waiting for me, I don’t want to get hit,” he said. “Take him out. But you have to have evidence. … if you don’t find any weapons of mass destruction, what are you left with? Regime change.”

Rangel spokesman Dan Maffei told HOH of the spread, “It’s a great picture. But I do ask that if anyone picks up the magazine, they read the article as well.”

Lamar! As a two-time presidential wannabe, freshman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is watching the Democratic nomination battle with some interest.

After all, if he had been elected president during his first run in 1996, Alexander might be close to wrapping up his second term in office right now.

“It’s hard to imagine,” he said with a laugh Wednesday. “I’m happy where I am.”

But Alexander would at least like to use his experience to craft a remedy that would shake up the presidential primary process by widening the schedule and creating a more level financial playing field.

“It’s not a contest worthy of the office they’re seeking,” Alexander said. “It’d be like if the NFL had a few preseason games in August, the commissioner declared the Rams the winner and everyone goes home before Labor Day.”

Alexander wants to increase the amount that individuals can give to presidential candidates from $2,000 to $10,000 in order to make it easier for each candidate to build up a decent war chest at the start.

“Take off the limits on fundraising, at least for the first $10 million,” he said. “Like a startup fund.”

In fact, Alexander believes that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) could have won the presidency if such a system had been in effect. McCain won New Hampshire, but the funds that suddenly poured in at that point were too little too late.

“I think Senator McCain could have won but for the rules he favors,” Alexander noted. “When he needed the money was in the six months before New Hampshire.”

Alexander said nearly the same situation played out in 1996, when he finished a strong third in New Hampshire, just behind eventual nominee and ex-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

“Dole was running ads in Michigan and South Carolina months before the New Hampshire primary,” he recalled. “So when I got a boost in New Hampshire, I didn’t have any money” to compete in the next states.

Alexander, meanwhile, enjoys attending all of his staff’s softball games. That’s because he has fond memories of meeting his wife, Honey, in 1967. She was playing for the team of the late Sen. John Tower (D-Texas), and he was with then-Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.).

“I was attracted by her red shorts,” he quipped. “A pretty loose softball game and a big party afterwards was the formula, and I gather that still goes on.”

Web Woes. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) are not just watching ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) gain steam in the presidential money chase.

Gephardt, Lieberman and the other Democratic contenders from Congress are all trailing Dean in “Web buzz,” as measured by Lycos.

In his daily report of “The Lycos 50” hottest things on the Web on Wednesday, Aaron Schatz ranked the candidates based on how often surfers are punching the names of the presidential contenders into the search engine.

Dean ranked first, followed by Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who is not even an official candidate. Then there’s Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), followed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.).

The Rev. Al Sharpton actually comes in seventh in Web buzz, ahead of Lieberman and Gephardt. Ex-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) rounds out the list at No. 10.

“How popular on the Internet is Dean these days?” writes Schatz. “More popular than Madonna, Dr. Phil or Alyssa Milano.”

Schatz added that “Democrats online don’t seem to be that curious about Dick Gephardt or Joe Lieberman.”

But Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith isn’t sweating Dean’s Internet popularity. “If he edges ahead of Carmen Electra, we’ve got big problems,” he cracked.

“Well, this is clearly over,” added Lieberman Minister of Information Jano Cabrera. “The Internet has spoken and we here at the Lieberman campaign have no hard feelings. We congratulate President Harry Potter and Vice President Pamela Anderson and wish them well as they assume the reigns of power over this fine country.”

“Howard Dean has topped the other candidates on MeetUp and in Internet donations, so this is just one more example of how this campaign is making history,” countered Dean spokesman Eric Schmeltzer. “That having been said, look out Justin Guarini; you’re next, pretty boy!”

Dear Diary. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was merely bemused when he took incoming fire from Graham on Wednesday.

Graham lashed out at DeLay for telling USA Today that President Bush providing false information to the American people on Iraq was only “one little flaw here and one little flaw there.”

The presidential contender charged that the “right-wing House leader has become White House mouthpiece on Iraq.”

DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella lampooned Graham’s note-taking habits in a response to HOH:

“Dear Diary,

1:32 p.m. — Press still ignoring me, so I lied about my hero, Tom DeLay.

1:41 p.m. — Picked up 7 Florida neckties from cleaners.

6:01 p.m. — Still trailing Sharpton, Kucinich in the polls.”

French Detente? House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), call your office.

Just a few months after Ney banned french fries in the House cafeterias, Democrats giddily informed HOH that two varieties of the very liberal Ben & Jerry’s “Peace Pops” are being sold in the House eateries.

“So, nothing French, but yes to ice cream ‘packaged with a message supporting a progressive peace-building initiative,’” e-mailed Dave Silverstone, an aide to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). “And yes, one of the varieties is Cherry Garcia. Oh, the irony.”

Presidential Stork. Robert Gibbs, spokesman for Kerry’s presidential campaign, and wife, Mary Catherine, welcomed a baby boy into the world on Tuesday night.

Ethan Lane weighed in at a hefty and healthy 10 pounds, five ounces.

“He is beautiful, a trait undoubtedly passed down by his mother, who is resting comfortably,” the spokesman said.

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