Here at WPRI, we seem to be writing about Paul Ryan a lot. People are probably starting to wonder if our acronym stands for the “Wisconsin Paul Ryan Institute.”
But much like Ron Burgundy, Ryan is kind of a big deal. People know him. (I was unable to determine whether his apartment smells of rich mahogany.) So I was enlisted to write a lengthy article about his life in Washington, D.C. – which required me to make a trip out there in May to follow him around.
On May 4th, I showed up at Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, ready for my flight out to D.C. I was dressed as I normally am when I fly – jeans, untucked shirt, baseball cap, and about a week’s worth of beard. Sitting in the airport, I noticed then-U.S. Senate candidate Dick Leinenkugel walk up to the gate. A few minutes later, I saw gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker settle in nearby. Shortly thereafter, Ryan himself joined Walker. It then dawned on me that I was on the Tuesday morning flight that all the politicians take to get to D.C.
I walked up to Walker (who was heading to D.C. for a campaign event) and mentioned what a star-studded flight this was. I told him I fully expected Lady Gaga to show up in the airport. (He laughed, although I would think more highly of him if he didn’t know who Lady Gaga was.)
Despite being in the same place dozens of times, I’d never actually spoken to Ryan. I started making small talk with him, then mentioned that I thought we were scheduled to have dinner together that night. Suddenly, he looked concerned that this guy dressed like a hobo talking to him might be crazy. He started frantically scrolling through his schedule on his phone, and said “oh yeah, I guess we are… Not dressed like that, I hope.”
(I was thinking that when I showed up at his office, I should actually wear two suits at one time, just to show him how committed I was to dressing respectably.)
My time at the Capitol with Ryan is pretty well detailed in the article. When we first met, I asked him if he even knew who I was – he said he had read some of my commentaries. I actually felt bad about this – he should be busy fixing the world, not reading my ribald blog posts. (Among the ones I guarantee he never read is this one featuring Ryan, in which I speculate as to what it would be like today if congressmen were allowed to endorse products, as they did in the old days.)
When Ryan was in closed door meetings, I went out and wandered around the Capitol and the Longworth House Office Building. The building is triangular, with high ceilings, long halls and green marble floors. On a few occasions, I spotted lobbyists standing outside congressional offices staring at the floor, muttering to themselves. They were no doubt practicing what they were going to say during their meeting in order to convince the attending congressperson to spend my money. I’d actually almost prefer the lobbyist just punch me in the face and take my wallet on the spot. Then at least the feds wouldn’t get their cut off the top.
The halls of Longworth are also populated with a bloused armada of comely young women, hired no doubt because of their detailed knowledge of economics and foreign affairs. Usually not far behind one of these women is a member of Congress, working hard to make it look like wherever they’re going, it’s really important. Male congressmen are usually easy to spot – they’re the ones whose hair color would be laughed at if they worked anywhere but at the U.S. Capitol. I’m convinced that if male members of Congress stopped buying men’s hair coloring products, the American economy would suffer a housing market-style collapse.
Some of the faces of these Congress members are vaguely familiar; ironic, since somewhere out there in a small slice of America, each one of them are famous. It’s hard to believe that each one of these congressmen are actually 600,000 people looking to have their voices heard in Washington. (Although not literally, as they would need bigger pants.)
I stopped at the Longworth cafeteria to buy a soda, and when the portly African-American woman working the register rang me up, she told me it’ll be “150 dollars.” Then she chortled heartily, and said she’s just kidding – it’s only a dollar fifty. It’s a good joke – I felt like I was the first one she’s ever used it on – and it immediately made her a lock for the title of “friendliest federal employee in America.”
As I sat and sipped my Diet Coke, I saw Democratic Wisconsin Representative Steve Kagen, from the Green Bay area. For the record, we did not speak – in case he goes back home and brags to his constituents that he insulted me, as he is wont to do. (In 2006, Kagen claims he personally insulted President and First Lady Bush at a meeting for freshman members of Congress. In a strange twist, the fact that the story was false made him look even more like a classless jerk.)
Oddly, a few minutes later, I just happened to stumble upon an outdoor press conference given by Democratic Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind. The Wisconsin legislators appeared to be everywhere. Kind was speaking to the media, pushing a “keeping kids from being fatties” bill. Since Washington is essentially a swamp (both figuratively and literally), Kind was clearly wilting in his suit under the heat and humidity.
At other points during the day, I was escorted around by Ryan’s Budget Committee press secretary, 25-year old Marquette University grad Conor Sweeney. Sweeney took me down to the Budget Committee office, which is tucked into a dark corner in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building. As ranking member of the House Budget Committee, Ryan essentially has two offices – his eight-person member office, and another 15-person budget office, which resides in a dank dungeon in the bowels of a different office building. The cramped office is missing ceiling tiles, and rusted pipes jut out from the walls. It resembles a crack den. A television above Sweeney’s desk flickers on and off as the reception fades into fuzz and pops back. Sweeney proudly declared this office “the birthplace of the roadmap.” I took a picture for the Smithsonian.
Later, we had to go find out where the new House media room was, in advance of Ryan’s interview with MSNBC later in the day. Brightly colored Media Room A has been recently renovated – a podium stands atop a stage in front of American flags; about 50 media chairs sit in front. It makes sense that Congress would revamp their media room – they need to spend money to allow them to go on television to convince the American people that they need to spend more money.
Sweeney mentions that Ryan is conducting an interview with Fox Business Channel’s John Stossel in one of the side rooms on Thursday. The best thing about doing an interview with Stossel is that you never have to worry about him being late – his gigantic mustache gets there ten minutes before he does.
As I mentioned in the story, I was actually at the Capitol the very day that a Wisconsin political giant, liberal Congressman Dave Obey, announced his retirement. As a political observer in Wisconsin, I felt like I should attend, just to say I was there. But I also felt somewhat guilty – I have plenty of Democrat friends back in Wisconsin who would have killed to be there to see this – and yet it’s me, a conservative who opposes pretty much everything Dave Obey stands for, who gets to see the announcement in person. (At the press conference, I saw my own congresswoman, Tammy Baldwin, which made it a clean sweep as far as me seeing Wisconsin Democrats. Granted, I’m not a mind reader, but Baldwin seemed shocked and a little disoriented at the news that Obey was stepping down.)
In the piece, I mention that late in the day, we made our way to a speech Ryan was giving to a group of investment bankers at the Newseum. Ryan drove himself, Seifert and me to the speech in his green 2003 Chevy Tahoe (built in Janesville, of course). The power locks are broken, and Ryan complained that it would cost $400 to fix them. (Which, even if it wasn’t true, kind of seems like a story a congressman would want told about himself.) He is an extraordinarily adept District of Columbia driver, darting in and out of traffic as if he drove a cab. (Incidentally, the only people that love America more than Paul Ryan are Washington D.C. cab drivers.)
During the ride, we discuss baseball. Ryan mentions that his dad was in the same University of Wisconsin-Madison fraternity as former one-legged Milwaukee Brewer manager Harvey Kuenn. Ryan says he’s only thrown out one ceremonial first pitch – at an American Legion game (it was a little high, but over the plate), but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of other famous politician first pitches. And he is bipartisan in his criticism of awkward politician throwing motions.
In order to get an opposing view on Ryan, I made a few calls to Democrats – and actually landed an interview with Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (who happens to be the second most powerful member of Congress at the moment.) His staffer, former Wisconsin native Stephanie Lundberg, graciously set up ten minutes for me to talk to him by phone. (I opened the discussion by thanking him for hiring Wisconsinites in his office – it’s helping keep our unemployment rate down.)
Sadly, my interview with Hoyer didn’t make the final cut (it was essentially replaced by my discussion of Peter Orszag, White House Budget Director.) But here’s what appeared in the original piece:
Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who considers himself to be a Paul Ryan fan, disagrees with this approach. While Hoyer told me Ryan was “bright, principled, and effective,” he also questioned whether a “supply side” proposal like Ryan’s would work. “It’s been proven that supply-side economics don’t work,” said Hoyer, adding that “Reagan and Bush supply-side policies got us into a $4.86 billion deficit.” Hoyer did praise Ryan for his “courageous” stand, saying, he respected Ryan’s “intellectual integrity in putting forth his solutions and directions with are intellectually honest.”
I finished my final exit interview with Ryan on the morning of Thursday, May 6th, at 9:00 AM. While I talked to him, a security guy came through his office, checking things out. I asked Ryan what that was all about. He mentions that his next meeting is with the head of the World Bank. This blew my mind. So at some point, Ryan’s schedule looked like this:
9:00 to 9:30 – Christian Schneider, lover of pizza
9:30 to 10:00 – Head of World Bank
Keep in mind – at this point, Greece was literally in flames. The European economy was imploding – and I blame myself. I took too long asking Ryan about what his favorite Wisconsin Dells water park was.
I had to be out of my hotel room at noon, but my flight home didn’t leave until 4:00 or so. So I just decided to hang out in the airport all day and begin writing the story. As I sat there with my giant headphones on, I saw a tall figure walk up next to me – I looked up, and it was Ryan, once again on my flight. Seeing I was dressed the same way I had been on the flight out, he shook his head at me. “At least you shaved,” he said.
In closing, I wanted to thank Ryan and his staff – Kevin Seifert, Conor Sweeney, Sarah Peer, and Andy Speth among them – for helping me out with the story. Couldn’t have done it without you folks.
Also, the magazine cover painting of Ryan was done by Nathaniel Gold, whose outstanding work can be found here at his website.
Here’s one of our rejected caricatures of Ryan: