"The people have spoken clearly, and they demand that we in Congress take our snouts out of the public trough," shouted House Speaker Dennis Hastert, his face turning even redder than usual, as he pounded his fist on the podium and peered ahead with a look of steely reserve.
"Cut," said the director.
As filming for the commercial wound down for the day, Speaker 'Denny' Hastert bounded over to greet us and give me a bit of his precious time. Hastert, who is often referred to as the John Candy of the Rotunda, was eager to share his views on lobbying reforms over a quick martini, as long as I was willing to pick up the tab. And drive. And pick up his dry cleaning. He had a deal.
"You don't have a driver tonight," I noted, slipping behind a prime table at The Monocle. "Why is that?"
"Oh my heavens, heh heh heh, oh boy, don't I wish." Hastert's belly shook like a bowlful of jelly, and his entire appearance took on a Claustian glow. "Let me tell you a little something, my friend. This is a mighty expensive city, and you just don't earn enough as a simple congressman to where you can go out and hire yourself a driver. Why, I make barely enough money to stay afloat. Forget about all the gilded trimmings. Not that I'm complaining. I didn't come to the House to make money, after all. But, yeah, you'd have to be independently wealthy to afford a driver in this town... either that or be taking bribes, heh heh heh."
I nodded and looked for the waitress.
"Teddy Kennedy has a driver," Hastert added, after momentary reflection. "John Kerry, he does, too."
I mentioned that these were indeed wealthy men who probably didn't need bribes to be able to afford a driver. Hastert nodded sagely. The twenty dollar bill that I was waving over my head had proven ineffective, so I replaced it with a fifty. I turned to face Hastert and brazenly fired off my next question. "What's up with all this brouhaha?"
"Brouhaha? You're right, my friend, that's exactly what it is. A great big steaming pile of brouhaha. Senators putting their wives on the payroll of phony charities. Congressmen taking expensive gifts and fine vacations and - this is off the record - hookers in exchange for voting for a piece of legislation. It just turns my stomach to think about it, I'll tell you that. And as much as it pains me to admit it, it's not just the Democrats that are involved in this scandal. I'm pretty sure there are some Republicans involved as well."
"Really?," I responded. My plan had worked perfectly, and my fifty was now on it's way to be converted into liquid currency. I silently resolved that I would ask for change back when the waitress reappeared.
"Oh yes, I'm afraid so," said Hastert, perhaps a little too offhandedly. "Pelosi, Reid, they've got dirty hands, needless to say, but on our side there's Tom Delay. That's off the record, just in case he gets lucky. Vulgar little man. And I hate to say this, but I'm keeping a close eye on John McCain. You know, he was involved in that Keating scandal back in the eighties, and once you go in the black, I'm afraid you don't ever go back."
"My, my," I commiserated, as the waitress placed our glasses on deep blue napkins.
"Miss, may I get change with that?" I asked, one hand reaching for my martini, and the other reaching out for cash. The waitress scowled and handed back twelve dollars in ones.
"My friend is just kidding," Hastert said to the waitress, panic in his voice. "What the hell do you think you're doing, wise guy" he hissed across the table to me. "Give that girl the money back ."
"What?," I stuttered mealy-mouthed, my faux pas spreading crimson across my cheeks. "That's a big tip."
"Thirty percent is not a big tip," Hastert shouted. "Are you trying to make Denny Hastert look like a cheapskate son of a bitch in public?" He finished his drink in one extended gulp.
"No, no," I recoiled, at a loss for words or actions. "What do you usually pay?"
"Pay?" the big man bellowed. "Now why in the world would I go and do something crazy like that?"
He had a valid point, of course, but he had moved on to another table before I had had a chance to admit it. I had let him down, and now my interview was over, a victim of my simple lack of grace. A new martini was already winging it's way over to the Speaker, carried by my former waitress, who shot me a dirty look before whispering into the congressman's ear. The two glanced my way and laughed.
It's hard being the new reporter in a company town, but I would learn, I would learn. I settled back into my seat, loosened my tie, and slowly scanned the bar. I could pick out at least eight congressmen in the room, along with a handful of senators, a couple of White House aides, and probably a score more power brokers that I was still too green to recognize. And look at the competition; every one of them was talking to reporters.
©2006, Mark Hoback