There’s a ritual of comeuppance prized in American culture. In Hollywood, you can find it in Us Weekly’s “Stars — they’re just like us,— which chronicles celebrities cleaning up after their dogs, receiving parking tickets or otherwise suffering the mundane plights of human existence. In this town, many a Washingtonian ego has felt the deflationary influence of Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill.
[IMGCAP(1)]While I’m fortunate (or willfully forgetful) not to have an HOH write-up that’s stuck with me, I’ve consumed my share of humble pie. As a freshman, I was known for stunts that some on the Hill thought flaky but I felt demonstrated that I was a “man of the people.— My first major amendment sought to get rid of operators in automatic elevators. It seemed reasonable to a young Congressman from Kansas out to change the world. Then I stepped into the elevator in Longworth and dear Katherine asked me why I was trying to get rid of her job. It was a powerful reminder that actions have consequences.
An influential Member (now good friend) hauled me into his office, declared my bill a colorful term for poultry waste and warned me that I wouldn’t be a very effective Member. I came home sweating and told my wife that I had ruined my career.
Turns out I had plenty more opportunities. I was the guy who got rid of printing the House restaurant menu every day. (The food never changed and rarely did the prices.) Those beautiful bound volumes of the Congressional Record that they used to give to every Member of Congress? I got rid of those, too.
My gadfly phase peaked when I took on the special parking area for Members of Congress at National Airport. When folks walked out of the terminal in the dead of winter, they had to trudge right past it. At some point, I gave a speech declaring that its sign might as well read “Reserved for kings and queens.—
Perhaps most shocking was the fact that I was shocked at all when I ran for president of my freshman class and lost. I was pretty down until a more senior Member gave me some sage advice. “Glickman,— he said, “you’re too much of a hotshot. You need to relax a bit, and you might go further.—
I found a way to do that at our Democratic retreats. Every year we’d put on shows. Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) would play piano. Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.) would clog dance, and I wrote and sang songs (“I did my work. Honest, decent — what a jerk!—). One time, as a joke, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) got everyone to walk out during my number. Little did I know then that I would entrust Barney with the security of my life savings.
We did a lot of stuff like that to have a good time — partly because we were all here and our families were here. Virtually no one lived back home. The Democrats had big margins. One year we headed out to Greenbrier. It was near the end of the Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas) era. CSX railroad had arranged for a train. Helicopters trailed us all the way down, and we were met at the station by a local high school marching band. I remember thinking this won’t last much longer — and it didn’t.
To today’s freshmen, I say don’t be afraid to question the status quo. Folks back home like it, and it shows you haven’t been taken up by the system. And don’t lose the ability to laugh at yourself. During the ’80s farm crisis, then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and I were always trying to outdo each other. Once I was holding court at a hearing with Jessica Lange and Jane Fonda. Pat came in and declared that he was so proud that I had found such profound experts on agriculture. We had a good relationship, rooted in humor, and we achieved a lot together as a result.
The world, especially politics, needs more humor. If you’re liked and you treat people well, then you’re more likely to get things done. Just remember: Eventually you, too, will be heard on the Hill. So be careful what you say in the elevator.
Former Rep. Dan Glickman (D) represented Kansas’ 4th district for 18 years. He is chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.