It is evening in America and Steve Stockman is pumped. Wearing a sky-blue button that says “I’m a Freshman and Proud of It,” the 39-year-old Republican congressman from the 9th District of Texas is basking in the glory of the government shutdown, proud on this December night that his colleagues, those fervent disciples of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, had spent another day showing their mentor and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and President Clinton a thing or two about standing firm and sticking to campaign promises. “I think finally, finally, the White House sees we’re serious,” Stockman says, delighted that the freshmen have brought negotiations to a standstill with their uncompromising demand for a balanced budget in seven years—and no dice to any temporary spending measures. Retirees may go without social security checks, veterans may go without benefits, welfare moms will just have to make do, but the freshmen have shown they will not be pushed around. “I felt pretty powerful there for a minute,” Stockman says to the young staffers gathered in his office’s reception area to watch an afternoon press conference given by freshmen replayed on the evening news. Hitching up his pants, Stockman harrumphs and postures, pretending to be…a congressman. “Wanna go out to dinner? I’ve got about three million dollars to spend.”
Stockman, with his ski-slope nose, elfin ears, and perpetually mischievous eyes, is on a roll. “I have shown great independence on the critical issues of our district,” he orates to his chief of staff, a prematurely gray young man by the name of Cory Birenbaum. “I’ve opposed the leadership on Mexico—” Stockman continues, a reference to his opposition to the government’s $20 million bailout of the Mexican economy. “And on Bosnia,” Birenbaum prompts.
“On Bosnia,” Stockman agrees, nodding as he cites his opposition to the deployment of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe.
“And on NAFTA,” suggests Birenbaum.
“NAFTA!” choruses Stockman, enchanted with the memory.
Hearing Stockman talk, it sounds pretty easy to be a congressman: Shut it down; close it up—that is what the voters want. Oh, Stockman has taken some missteps this first year in office—like last April’s big deal over the fax he had received from a militia group minutes after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City (“I did the right thing. I handed it over. I wish I never did,” he says. “I wish it never happened”). And last June he had called the attorney general and the president murderers in a story for Guns and Ammo magazine about the Second Amendment and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco (“These men, women and children were burned to death because they owned guns that the government did not wish them to have,” he wrote). And there has been an almost total lack of enthusiasm, during this shutdown period, for Stockman’s December call for a thorough investigation of Alfred Kinsey’s fifty-year-old report on human sexual behavior. But, so what? Everyone learns by doing, and Steve Stockman would be the last man to take exception to that rule. “This,” he says, in an eager manner that was the result of the shutdown in particular and governing in general, “is pretty exciting.”
“THE LEADERSHIP HAS TOLD ME, ‘ YOU’RE TOO honest. You’re too open,’ ” Stockman said earlier that same day. “The way I see it, the nail that is stuck up highest gets pounded. If you stand up for your principles, you’ll get hit,” he added, pounding his own head for emphasis. At that time, things were looking a little grim. Stockman was fighting the flu, contracted because no freshman Republican, no matter how contagious, could bear to lose even one sick day in service to Newt’s Contract With America. Then there was the media, who seemed determined to paint Stockman and his affinity group as stubborn, surly three-year-olds (the previous evening, Nightline had double-entendred Stockman and his colleagues with a show titled “Those Revolting Freshmen”). But most painful of all was facing a reporter anxious to assess Stockman’s legislative career, which, nearing the end of his first year in Washington, had been the subject of—at best—mixed reviews.
Stockman likes to call his story “The American Dream.” In 1994 the occasional accountant and born-again Christian miraculously defeated Jack Brooks, a liberal legend who had just about ossified after 42 years of service to the region that stretches from Clear Lake to the Louisiana border. Stockman’s election was a reflection of the American electorate’s deeply felt but squirrelly notion that the best alternative to seasoned politicians was neophytes. Unbeholden to special interests, unschooled in the wicked ways of Washington, unburdened by party history, these freshmen would, the voters believed, unflinchingly cut spending, lower taxes, shrink bureaucracies, and reform their profession.