The Chris Lee scandal and the anonymity of the average congressman
Members of Congress: They walk among us. While most of us in the greater Washington metropolitan area go about our daily business barely aware of their existence, at any given time as many as 535 of them are living among us -- on the Metro, at the gym, in line behind you at the grocery store... or exchanging e-mails with you on Craigslist.
The anonymity of the average congressman was a curious dynamic behind last week's unlikely political scandal, the abrupt resignation of Rep. Chris Lee after his shirtless-photo flirtation was revealed. The married second-termer not only e-mailed pictures of himself, face and torso clearly visible, but used his real name.
Incredibly reckless? Really stupid? Or a shrewd awareness that most people wouldn't have a clue who he was? His e-acquaintance didn't; she pieced it together only because he also (amazingly) used an e-mail address traceable to his official Facebook page.
New reps may be big fish in their districts, but most are guppies when they first come to Washington. Unless they're on the Hill or wearing a congressional pin, most pass unrecognized in the nation's capital. Plenty of cocktail parties have that awkward moment when someone asks, "So, what do you do?" and the answer is, "I'm the congressman from . . . " Oh.
"Basically, I was anonymous," said former representative Dina Titus (D-Nev.). The Las Vegas political science professor served one term in Congress before losing her seat in November. She was recognized at official events and in her Capitol Hill neighborhood, but that was about it. Most Washingtonians never saw her on the news, which was fine by her. "A handful of freshmen courted D.C. media," she told us. "But if you're smart, you courted your local media. That's where you want to be known."
Think about it: Out of the 25 freshmen in the 111th Congress who lost in November, only two became household names: Anh "Joe" Cao (R-La.), the first Vietnamese-American elected to the House, and Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), who made "fracking" a national punchline.
Nonetheless, the anonymity for any member is an illusion, said Bob Inglis (R), a former congressman from South Carolina. "Wherever you are, you may be one table way from one person who knows exactly who you are," he told us.
Inglis, who served six terms in two different stints, recalled being on a diplomatic mission with Rep. Pete Welch (D-Vt.) that was passing through Turkey. In an obscure Istanbul restaurant, Welch was recognized by a college group from his home state. "So he goes around and starts shaking hands." Now a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School, Inglis said any congressman has to assume every stop at the dry cleaner, every dash to the grocery store may turn into "an interaction with somebody who may well know you personally."
Titus said she often randomly bumped into people visiting Washington from Nevada. "But what was surprising was how many people recognized me from my former lives -- for example, I'd run into someone I went to college with at William and Mary 30 years ago."
One other factor that may have played into Lee's downfall: the declining number of congressional families who move to Washington. Decades ago, wives and children routinely followed a member to D.C., but those days are long gone. House Speaker John Boehner's wife and daughters, for example, have lived in Ohio for his two decades in Congress.
Members who relocate here are often accused of fraternizing with the enemy: professional politicians, lobbyists and other Inside-the-Beltway types. Spouses' careers, housing prices and schools all make it easier for most members to essentially camp out in D.C. and commute back home every weekend. All the travel, the long hours and separation can take a toll on marriages -- especially for freshman members away from their families for the first time.
And yet, they'll do almost anything to stay -- or return. We asked Titus if she'd run again. "Oh, yeah!" she told us.
Chris Lee scandal: Yesha Callahan, the woman who met him on Craigslist, tells her story
What happens to Lee's seat?, Feb. 10
Boehner: Lee made 'right decision' to resign
Political sex scandals: An old ritual with new rules, Feb. 10
Chris Lee scandal is talk of Washington Press Club Foundation congressional dinner, Reliable Source, Feb. 10
Rep. Chris Lee resigns after reports of Craigslist flirtation, Feb. 9
The Reliable Source
| February 14, 2011; 12:00 AM ET
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