It was, in retrospect, a terrible idea. Waiting to board a plane at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., I saw a member of Congress who had been on my radio show. Let's call him "Larry," because our conversation was off the clock and off the record.
Larry is a congressman with very thin skin. He thinks I treat him unfairly on my show and has complained to Univision, my employer, about me. I think his stance on immigration is weak, and that his actions on the issue are weaker still.
Full disclosure: I did not record this conversation. The following quotations are my very best recollection of what Congressman Larry and I discussed.
In any case, I thought that since this was neutral ground, the line to board a plane being the great equalizer, I would approach and say hello. The congressman was speaking to a short, blonde woman, and as I approached, she seemed to disappear from his awareness as he narrowed his eyes, pivoted his body and scrunched his face at me, apparently recognizing me.
"Hello, Congressman Larry," I said, extending my hand.
He shook my hand and, after a minuscule pause, let me have it.
"Your criticism of me on immigration is wrong, unfair and dishonorable," he said.
"Well, I'm sorry you think so," I replied. "But the facts are the facts."
He dropped my hand and pointed his finger at me, his voice rising. "You're wrong about the facts, you're wrong about me, and you can ask anybody, anybody."
It was a very tense moment. Having one's integrity and professionalism called into question is never fun. And the rules of engagement in a public place, in front of a large crowd, are ambiguous at best. I smiled tightly and said, "I don't think so, but I'm willing to correct myself if I have any facts wrong."
"You just don't understand the process," he said. "And that's the problem. Either you understand the process and ignore it, or you don't understand the process and you should not be behind a microphone."
I should mention that this particular congressman is not used to intense or scrutinizing criticism. In the mainstream media, he has carved out a reputation as an immigration policy expert, so many reporters routinely call on him for analysis. And in his hometown, his prominent family is treated like 19th-century European aristocrats -- inviolable, untouchable and with a feudal right to rule. In other words, the hometown media is well-tamed, at times fawning.
I don't go out of my way to criticize people on my show. But when a politician is ineffective, when a congressperson fails in their most basic duties of delivering the goods on issues of critical national importance -- like immigration reform -- I will not hesitate to call them out. It's my job.
After Larry the congressman told me I do not understand "the process," I had to tell him the obvious: "Excuses about process are not very compelling. Either you break through and get your bill on the floor or you don't."
Congressman Larry once again shook his head at me, his eyes squinting as if at any moment he would punch me in the mouth. He repeated, "Your criticism of me on immigration is wrong, unfair and dishonorable."
At this time we had boarded the plane, and as luck would have it, he was sitting in the row behind mine, across the aisle. We continued our conversation as other passengers slowly boarded. As he put his suit jacket in the overhead compartment, I said, "You know, I don't have an agenda. Just doing my job."
He again pointed that finger at me. "Yes, you do! You want to run against me!"
I had to laugh. "I'm not running against you. People call my show to ask if I'm running, but I'm not."
Congressman Larry smiled broadly and said, "Do it. I welcome you with open arms. Try it. You want to, but you won't. You know why?"
"Yes," I said. "Because I'm never running for office."
"No," he said with a smile, as if he had thrust his sword at me and hit a particularly sensitive area of my body. "You won't run because you don't have the--." At this point he drew a circle in the air, as if he were showing me the size of a particularly large Krispy Kreme doughnut. "Yes," he said, "you don't have the balls."
I said, very slowly, as if I were talking to a Russian tourist asking me how to find the Air and Space Museum, "I. Am. Not. Running. For. Any. Office."
"Yes! You don't have the balls," he said.
At this point more passengers started streaming into the airplane cabin, and we could no longer holler at each other across the aisle. I sat down and opened the airline magazine, looking at the back pages where the airline shows their route network, wishing at that moment that I had been on my way to Kuala Lumpur or Uruguay or some tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Adrenaline was pumping through my body, and I was really craving a couple of those little airline bottles of Scotch. And then I felt myself relax. I started to think about the conversation, Congressman Larry's schoolyard taunts about the relative size of testicles, and what their role in political campaigns was.
It had been a revealing exchange.
While Congressman Larry thought my coverage of his failure on immigration was "wrong, unfair and dishonorable," I didn't buy it. If you're a member of Congress, you have to buck up and be ready to be criticized by the media when your delivery on a key issue is zero.
But more importantly, I got a glimpse into why there may be such a huge disconnect in America between citizens across the nation and the political class shuffling through the halls of Congress. While most Americans expect that the government will actually achieve things, accomplish the nation's goals and, well, do its job, many members of Congress are exactly like Congressman Larry.
The idea that trying and repeatedly failing is acceptable is a congressional myth that does not exist in the nonpolitical world. In my case, if I don't deliver the ratings, Univision will fire me -- even if I have tried really, really hard and claimed "the process" got in the way.
Of course, my job-performance situation is the reality for all Americans. Students who get an "F" don't get credit for trying. Doctors who routinely kill their patients on the operating table, don't get a mulligan. The corner-store owner who works really hard but can't get consumers to buy her merchandise does not get to use her great effort as an excuse when her store shuts down.
That's life. Except for our representatives in Congress. Serial failure is supposed to be excused by effort. And when the so-called "process" is invoked as the excuse for failure, these politicians think we the voters and media should pat them on the back and, say, "Well, you failed, Congressman Larry, but you did a hell of a job in trying."
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