Who’ll Be the New Mouth in the House?
The silence is deafening. Robert K. Dornan just got bounced out of his job by a little more than 900 votes and suddenly the shrill is gone.
The congressman, bested by Democrat Loretta Sanchez, was bitter and bombastic to the end. He threw one last idiomatic crumb, a post-election swipe at O.C. Republican Party official William Dougherty, who dared to jump ship in that final, losing vote: “You’re a disgrace to your baptism! You’re a poor excuse for a Marine! You’re a pathetic, old, senile man! You’re a slimy coward!”
But the rest of the legacy of the nine-term representative now passes into congressional lore: his stream-of-consciousness rancor from the floor of Congress, the numerology, the religious cross-references and historical excursions. No longer will “we have a moral obligation to expose . . . and destroy” homosexuals in the Republican party. No one is left to accuse President Clinton of wearing “silk girlie-girlie jogging pants,” having “white doughboy thighs” or of being a triple draft dodger who gave aid and comfort to the enemy.
“I’m not sure anybody can pick up the Dornan baton, not unless Oliver Stone decides to run for Congress,” says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute here. “Others will clearly revel in the attention you get when you say something completely out of bounds or outrageous. . . . I expect there will be others who try and get that kind of attention. Although no one will do it in the inimitable way of Dornan.”
So we soldier on, looking for the next Sultan of Incivility. And, by widespread consent, the congressional nominees are:
* Rep. Dan Burton, who seemed a stellar candidate for a time. An unabashed admirer of Dornan and a like-minded despiser of Clinton, the Indiana Republican displays the same torpedoes-be-damned folksiness, demanding an accounting of tax dollars spent answering fan mail for Socks the first feline (“Lay Off the President’s Cat,” the Boston Herald advised him), shunning the House gymnasium after news broke that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was gay, and favoring an A-bombing of Iraq as the Gulf War loomed.
If Dornan was once willing to plunge into the waters off Chappaquiddick to investigate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Burton was eager to shoot up a “head-like” object at his home to prove that Vincent Foster was murdered.
But sadly, in his new lofty charge as chairman of the president-investigating House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Burton has promised to behave. “It’s going to surprise a lot of people, his new attitude of being . . . more civil,” says press aide Kevin Long.
* Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who demonstrated Dornan-like gusto in stampeding environmentalists and defending militia groups in her home state of Idaho. An Idaho Statesman newspaper editorial pegged her as a future “poster child” for fringe or hate groups. A popular Idaho radio talk-show host told the New York Times that, “Some voters would take a bullet for Helen Chenoweth.”
Though far more soft-spoken than B-1 Bob, Chenoweth demonstrates as much fearlessness on the offensive. The Republican, just reelected to a second term, sees white Anglo-Saxon males as the real “endangered species” of America, suggested after the Oklahoma City bombing that federal policies “may be pushing people too far,” believes that the old Confederacy was right all along about state’s rights, and wonders how Snake River chinook and sockeye salmon could be endangered when canned salmon can be purchased at any supermarket. She once held an endangered salmon bake as a campaign fund-raiser.
“Clearly,” says Chenoweth Chief of Staff Keith Rupp, “she gives as good as she gets when it comes to one-liners and trading barbs with her opponents.”
* Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who’s defending the Golden State’s stake in brazen behavior. Some view the former White House speech writer and Huntington Beach surfer as more dogged than even Dornan in pursuing an agenda. There are Republicans who say the Huntington Beach congressman sometimes pushes too hard. “He’s like a bulldog that’s got ahold of a bone,” said retiring Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale), who clashed with Rohrbacher over patent law. Rohrabacher labeled Moorhead arrogant and stupid and railed at him for 40 minutes on the House floor.
Rohrabacher calls environmentalists “the worst liars in the world” and sees the oil rig lights off California shores as beautiful. He preaches against U.S. trade policies toward the “bloody-fisted tyrants in Beijing” and criticizes studies on global warming as “junk science.”
While Dornan traveled the world probing foreign affairs issues, Rohrabacher sneaked into Myanmar to rally anti-government students. Unbowed even by GOP authority, Rohrabacher ignored a Bush administration directive to back off on setting obscenity standards for the National Endowment for the Arts. From the floor, he argued, “Because their position is out of sync with the morals and values of the American people, the opponents of standards have been going through enough acrobatics to qualify for a job with Ringling Bros.”
* Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Republican of Escondido. Who says there isn’t depth to the California bullpen?
The Dornanesque flair for physically scuffling with other congressman and vilifying Clinton as a draft dodger comes easily to this former Vietnam-era fighter ace. When Cunningham once crabbed at Democrats for advocating “homos in the military,” liberal Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) leaped to her feet to protest the epithet and Cunningham quickly fired back: “Sit down you Socialist.” (He later explained that his use of the term was shorthand for “homosexual,” a way of economizing his floor statement.)
And Cunningham demonstrated his skill at getting people’s attention when, while arguing against gun control, he said on the House floor: “I have flown an F-14 over this Capitol with a 20-millimeter gun that could shoot 6,000 rounds a minute. I could have disintegrated this hall in a half-second burst. Yet the gentleman from New York [Democrat Charles E. Schumer] would tell me that I cannot carry a 10-shot .22.”
* Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., who’s not allowing Democrats to be outdone. Many believe the 17-term congressman from Ohio was Dornan-like even before there was a Bob Dornan. A former county sheriff who beat a federal bribery rap, Traficant can slash colleagues on both sides of the aisle with ambidextrous ease. Speaking to the St. Petersburg Times, he once said of members: “Most of these jackasses don’t know what the hell is coming off. Half of them are so dumb they could throw themselves on the ground and miss their first try.”
And that isn’t to suggest that Traficant minces words when directly addressing those same members. When he failed to achieve an across-the-board defense cut several years ago, Traficant lashed out in a floor speech with: “Congress sold out. This is a damn house of political prostitutes.”
Unfortunately, his rating on the Dornan scale of diatribe fizzled later when Traficant chose to apologize for the remark.