In a secret office in the underbelly of the Capitol one recent Thursday night, David Dreier could be found playing Voltan Woman pinball, his white shirt crisp, his blue pants impeccably creased. He was sucking on a Tootsie Roll pop, confident but not cocky, preparing to take his place as one of the House's most powerful new leaders.
The designated chairman of the Rules Committee, Dreier will serve as traffic cop for all legislation in the new Congress, the first Californian to steer the national agenda by deciding which bills come to the floor and how they are debated.
But more than that, the House Republican leadership is looking to this Reagan Republican from San Dimas--handsome, telegenic, smart, conservative but compassionate--to put a more likable face on its party.
"He's like the Irishman who's got so much charm he can tell you to go to hell and you look forward to making the trip," said Rep. John Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee and its former chairman. "He can say no, but he doesn't shout no."
After 18 years in the House, Dreier comes to the job with surprisingly few enemies and very little baggage, an in-the-trenches lawmaker who never gets dirty. In the shadow of this year's unexpected GOP losses, he is everything his fallen comrades were not--soft-spoken, reasoned and unfailingly polite, astute in the way Washington works and a student of how power flows.
"He is unoffensive as a conservative. No one questions his conservative credentials. But he is not a blood-dripping-from-the-fangs Southern Bible thumper that people often view in their mind's eye when they think of a conservative or a Republican," one GOP congressional aide said.
His thank-you notes are ubiquitous. There is always a hankie in his suit pocket. He is the closest thing to Mr. Rogers his party has seen in a long time. (He seems to mean it when he says things like: "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care. It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.")
"The American people don't care about your ideological agenda if they are persuaded you are a nut. That's what did in [Speaker Newt] Gingrich and what made '96 and '98 close calls for House Republicans," said James Pinkerton, a Republican pundit at George Washington University. "What they need are more people like Dreier, who just seem normal."
But at 46, Dreier is also decidedly ambitious, a workaholic who set his sights on the chairman's seat years ago and never wavered. A prolific fund-raiser, he has more than $2 million in campaign money and friends in high places. But despite prodding by everyone from Richard Nixon to Colin L. Powell, he has cautiously passed up runs for the Senate.
A master at managing his public image, he is a veritable fixture on television talk shows and drive-time radio. There's a joke that they set up a cot for him at CNN. He was on "Crossfire" so many times he started getting mail from fans who thought he was the host. A woman actually recognized him the other day at a Burger King in Burbank.
Now he goes on TV remaking the party's battered image and advancing his own in the process, a rare feat for lawmakers from California whose greatest public relations challenge is to stand out in a crowd of 52.
He has a remarkable knack for having it both ways. About to take the oath of office for the 10th time, he is widely regarded as a political fresh face. He sat at Gingrich's right hand during the revolution, but almost no one considers him a revolutionary.
For years, Dreier has been one of the embattled speaker's chief champions. When the television talk shows needed somebody to defend Gingrich against ethics charges, they called Dreier first.
But when Gingrich went down, Dreier went up. While he was unfailingly reverent after Gingrich announced his resignation as speaker following historic GOP losses on Nov. 3--"All hail, Newt," he declared in a farewell toast at the Capitol--he also shed no tears.
"His retirement is like a burden lifted off my shoulders. I don't have to go on TV any more defending him," Dreier said of Gingrich one night in his Capitol office. "I did it because I am loyal to a fault. I got that from my father. And I am loyal to Bob Livingston now."
Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who will succeed Gingrich, promptly embraced Dreier. They talk almost every day. And Dreier's slow and deliberate climb up the House ladder of power is about to pay off.
"Exactly, it is about to pay off," Dreier says, sipping a bottle of Evian while slumped on the black leather couch in the hideaway where his eclectic pinball opponents have ranged from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. "I had all this pressure to run for Senate, but I wasn't sucked into that. A friend told me people can walk to the edge of the cliff with you and urge you to jump, but you are the one who jumps."
A free-trader, he will soon be positioned to influence fast-track legislation that his predecessor, Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon of New York, opposed. He is more empowered than ever to implement his personal agenda of limited government, a stronger national defense, tax cuts, budget reform and an Internal Revenue Service overhaul. Not to mention leveraging legislation for the benefit of California.
"To put it very bluntly, virtually every measure that will be considered in the House has to come to the committee that I will chair, so I plan to use that for the good of California and the good of the country," he says. "To find new markets in Asia and Latin America, expand high-tech and biotech industries, overhaul the tax code to help families and reduce the tax burden."
He is a social conservative but steers clear of hot-button topics like abortion. ("It's very unpleasant and I only end up alienating both sides," he says.) He believes charity should begin with the private sector, but volunteers at the L.A. Mission kitchen every Thanksgiving and is on the board, which accepts no government funds. He voted to strip public broadcasting stations of federal money, but runs a successful matching campaign every season for stations in Los Angeles and Washington.
If there is a recurring criticism about Dreier, it is that his life has been too charmed. Born in Kansas City, Mo., to parents who were strict Christian Scientists, he went to Principia boarding school in St. Louis at age 12 (where etiquette was stressed), and according to his mother, Joyce, was the model son: "He was all boy. He was a tease. He got in trouble now and then, but he never went to jail."
He was the high school quarterback. Claremont Men's College (now Claremont McKenna) brought Dreier west. A professor took Dreier to his first political rally, and a thief stole his wallet. Undeterred, he decided in 1978 to run for the House seat once held by Nixon. He won the primary while still living in his college dorm. He lost the general election, but came back two years later to unseat Democratic incumbent Jim Lloyd and, at 28, took his place in history as one of the youngest people ever elected to Congress.
It was a nasty campaign, but Dreier had a Teflon coating even then. "I don't blame David; I blame his campaign manager," Lloyd, still a loyal Democrat, said in an interview. Eighteen years later, they still have lunch every couple of months. Dreier remembered to send the Lloyds a card on their 50th wedding anniversary.
Years in the Making
It is as though Dreier has spent much of his life preparing for the power and celebrity that is about to visit him. He was the same Reagan Republican in college that he is today. He's hardly even aged. Not exactly a graduate of the school of hard knocks, his only elective office before Congress was high school class president. His only post-college job was a brief stint in marketing at a San Dimas firm.
His races are never challenging, his opponents usually referred to as "sacrificial lambs." He twice got more votes in his district than presidential candidate George Bush.
"He's not the kind of guy you want changing your spark plugs, let's put it that way," joked Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), Dreier's friend and colleague. "But he tries to mitigate that by listening to those of us who have been out there."
In fact, Dreier's greatest career test might lie just ahead. He will have to cobble consensus in a Congress where Republicans hold an 11-seat edge, a margin so thin that a handful of members with the flu could sink a bill. Dreier's job will be to devise terms of debate that members see as fair. The price if he doesn't: The House could prevent the legislation from even reaching the floor.
And if he hasn't made enemies yet, he probably will.
"If there are any cracks in the wall, you'll see them, because this is going to be very, very high-stress," said Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), a committee member. "Talk to him in six months to a year and you will notice some changes. Probably some wrinkles. Maybe some more gray hair."