Congressman Clueless

A year after East Texas voters elected political novice Steve Stockman to fight in Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution, Stockman’s harebrained ideas and headline—making gaffes have made him the laughingstock of his own party.

They could triumph where career politicians had failed. And then because they were not career politicians, they would ride out of town and make room for another cadre of fresh recruits. “We all had the novel idea that we’d come up and keep our word,” explained Stockman.

He did and they did—slimming congressional perks as they threaten to snatch food from welfare babies’ mouths—and there’s been hell to pay ever since. Stockman, it turns out, has been the most extreme example of the politician without portfolio: a man with no past, few ties, and a just-say-no ideology. That has meant, in a federal government facing tax, welfare, and health-care reforms, not to mention the maintenance of order in the post—cold war era, an allegiance to … abdication. The freshmen have usually been linked to the Republican right-wing fringe—to the rabid, gun-toting fundamentalists—but they have more in common with the people who call talk radio programs: Isolationist, uninformed, and impulsive, the freshmen have not been as concerned with traditional questions of more versus less government as they have been with less government versus no government at all. Devoted to getting their way, these freshmen—and their leader—have created one of the most divisive congressional terms in history. (In January, over the vehement objections of many freshmen, the Republican leadership and Clinton agreed to spending measures that would temporarily reopen the government.)

Not surprisingly, the freshmen in general and, most notably Stockman, have received nothing but contempt in more-seasoned quarters on Capitol Hill. “A complete nut” was the way one political reporter described him. “Off the reservation,” said another. “An embarrassment,” according to one congressional aide. “Not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree,” asserted a Democratic party operative. Republicans who defend Stockman assert that he has been treated unfairly because of his outspokenness. “He’s vocal in his convictions,” said fellow congressman Lamar Smith. Others don’t even try to defend him: “He’s a Republican,” said Edward Chen, the vice chairman of the Harris County Republican party. “As a Republican, he’s on our ballot. And that’s about the situation.”

Brooding over his poor notices, Stockman looked wounded. In his mind, he is a reasonable man who has been treated unreasonably. Attacked for ethical improprieties and his loyalty to the militia movement, Stockman claimed to be a victim of sloppy reporters: “They will take clippings and they will regurgitate.” He asserted that his ties to the Religious Right have been greatly exaggerated: “It’s a sad day in America if you go to church and you’re conservative and that’s a pejorative.” He has even been a victim of the political polarization he has helped foment: “The e word,” he said. “‘Extremist.’ The Democrats are testing themes. It’s just like us calling everybody a liberal. We’ve got ‘liberal.’ They’ve got ‘extremist.’” Pondering such finer points of the political game, Stockman grimaced at the seriousness of Washington. “These people have lost their sense of humor,” he said. “I used to be much more jovial. People here are so tightly wound.”

TIP O’ NEILL ONCE SAID THAT ALL POLITICS is local,” Steve Stockman remarked, citing the familiar bromide as he strode through the tunnels underneath the Capitol buildings to cast a vote on the House floor, “but to me, all politics is personal.” It was later that same morning, and his gloom had cleared, along with his sinuses. “Did I get invited to your office Christmas party?” he ribbed a fellow congressman, who looked queasy at the thought. Stockman was pleased that the freshman congressmen came off well—that is, not crazy—on Nightline and that another news report actually suggested that Gingrich was now beholden to them. Revitalized, the rookies planned to meet later in the day to press their balanced-budget plan. Stockman’s step was as light as a jig; for him, the shutdown equaled progress.

From Stockman’s overwhelmingly negative news clippings, it is possible to picture him as a combination of Joe McCarthy, Pat Robertson, and Rambo, but to spend the day with him is to see how much closer he is to Jim Carrey. As those somber Depression and World War II veterans have been eclipsed by baby boomers in government, a new kind of political archetype has emerged: the politician as adolescent. Along with Clinton, the great vacillator, and Gingrich, the great pouter, now there is Stockman, the cutup. Energetic and wisecracking, Stockman never met a stranger—“He’s a nice guy,” is his favorite compliment. (The president, who belongs to another clique, is by definition not a nice guy.) His diet consists mainly of junk food. His speech is full of teenage colloquialisms—“She’s gonna jolt him, dude,” he said of a staff member’s current girlfriend—and his attention span is ephemeral. “I felt books were too old,” he said of the “ferocious reading” he did in his twenties. “Magazines were quicker with the information. By the time a book was published, it was not current.” His intellect has been shaped by TV. “Ritalin—that’s my next crusade,” he said, inspired by a television show on the drawbacks of the attention-deficit disorder drug.

Substantive questions are the setup for a joke. Asked for his stand on managed care, the centerpiece of both parties’ health-care reform packages, Stockman winked and said, “We’re workin’ on it.” Asked whether he believed that he and Gingrich had effected a revolution: “That depends on whether we’re here or not in ten months,” he quipped. When Stockman avowed that all politics is personal, he meant it quite literally—all things that have touched his life. And because his experience has been narrow, his politics are too. Health care? International monetary systems? Regulating burgeoning telecommunications networks? “My core value is the belief in the American family and the belief that they make better decisions than I make for other people,” he said. Few who study Stockman’s background could disagree.

Back in his office a few hours later, Stockman was, again, expansive. He had worked through lunch in conference with other freshmen, unperturbed that the shutdown had hit home. “My wife works at NASA,

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