I was the only reporter who snuck into the Senate Spouses dinner in Washington last week and nobody swore me to secrecy so here goes ...
Tuesday, May 11, in the lofty, leafy glass arcade of the U.S. Botanic Garden near the Capitol, tea partier Scott Brown hobnobbed with prairie progressive Tom Harkin, affable Chuck Schumer put an arm around flinty Chuck Grassley, and cranky old Jim Bunning went around saying hi, even to Democrats. The Udalls were there, Mark of Colorado, Tom of New Mexico, looking like Eagle Scouts, as Udalls do. Here were obstructionist Republicans, smiling and gracious as small-town morticians, and their socialist death-panel colleagues being gracious right back: Dodd, Dorgan, Durbin. Some members seemed less embraceable than others: Roland Burris, the Rod Blagojevich appointee, was not Mr. Popularity, and one could detect a distinct coolness toward Saxby Chambliss, whose 2002 campaign defeating Max Cleland was more like first-degree assault than civics, but otherwise, people mingled freely.
Out in America, the U.S. Senate is regarded as a tiny medieval fiefdom of pompous gasbags, but in the Senate, there is genuine affection among colleagues. And why not? They spend a lot of time together. Johnny Isakson of Georgia palled around with Al Franken. There was friendship on both sides for Bob and Joyce Bennett of Utah. Senator Bennett has served three terms and, at 76, was hoping for a fourth, but a few days before, his state Republican committee denied him the endorsement, a big shock here, a sign of the anti-incumbency wave, and his fellow incumbents kept slipping over to him and patting him on the shoulder.
I walked past Sen. Carl Levin, sitting at a table, and got an aerial view of his incredible comb-over, which starts above his left ear and fans out across his bald pate — you would not want to see this man in the shower room. Landra Reid, the wife of the majority leader, was there, her first public appearance since she got clobbered by a semi on the interstate in March and broke her neck. She looked exquisitely lovely, ethereal, an Aubrey Beardsley portrait in our midst. Senator LeMieux of Florida arrived with infant daughter in a carrier, and Vicki Kennedy knelt down to speak to her.
It is instructive to meet the wives of men you have thought ill of in the past. I sat between Kathy Gregg, who is genuinely charming and married to a stone-faced New Hampshire conservative, and Mrs. Chambliss, who is chipper and chatty and the spouse of You Know Who. And then there was Barbara Grassley, who is as warm and funny as her husband is not. Which is a spouse's job, especially in an election year — to stand beside the gore-smeared warrior and bear mute witness to his humanity: "He and I have shared many pleasant meals together, and I have even had sex with this raspy-voiced, gimlet-eyed old weasel, and I plan to do that again in the near future."
And now the reader interrupts to inquire: "And in what capacity were you there, sir? As a busboy?"
No, dear reader, I was the pre-dinner speaker, which seems like an honor but turns out to be a sacrificial role. You get a Mighty Wurlitzer introduction by Leader Reid that makes it seem as if you died recently while rescuing small children from an onrushing locomotive and then you rise to tepid applause from men who've heard nothing but yak yak yak since early morn and you suddenly realize that 95 percent of the people in this room hope you will speak for three minutes or less. That's why they've put you on the program before dinner.
You've come armed with 20 minutes of wit and wisdom about Our Nation and Our People, like a man with an armload of zucchini, and your audience has been eating zucchini all week and would now like never to see another one.
And so you cut to the chase. Standing there before moon-faced Mitch McConnell and his lovely wife Elaine and the shining head of Mr. Bennett and the exquisite Landra, you say three funny things and press the ejector button and parachute gently to earth. One funny thing I said was: "The interesting thing about sitting next to a senator's wife at dinner is to realize that you've found someone who's been even angrier at him than you have." Even Senator Bunning threw back his head and laughed at that. So it must be true.
© 2010 Garrison Keillor
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