Odd Ideas, Short Tempers, Great Abs

Odd ideas, short tempers, great abs: Michelle Cottle on the characters who departed Congress this week.

AP (5); Getty (1)

While most of America fumed over the down-to-the-wire partisan posturing of the fiscal cliffhanger, the extended congressional session had a bittersweet upside for at least two Washingtonians: outgoing rep Dennis Kucinich and his wife, Elizabeth.

Oh, sure, the Ohio liberal and erstwhile presidential contender would have liked to see a meaningful Grand Bargain negotiated well before the 11th hour for the sake of the public. But at least all the speeches and votes and negotiations that dragged on through the holidays gave him a few more precious days to spend doing the job he had so loved for the past 15 years, until his tenure was curtailed in the Democratic primary this spring.

“For us it’s really great,” Elizabeth told me cheerily on New Year’s Eve. (As a lobbyist, she too was making the most of having all those lawmakers trapped in town.) “I would have a moping husband if the session was over. He doesn’t have a job to come back to in January.”

Kucinich fought the good fight right up to the last second, his wife reported proudly. Since being ousted from his “proper offices” several weeks back, he had crammed his staff into a tiny studio apartment near 2nd and C Street, close to the Capitol, while he himself toiled away in a “cubby hole” he had found just off the House floor. “He’s as happy as anything,” laughed Elizabeth. “He’s closer to the floor than he’s ever been.”

Alas, all good things must come to an end. And as of noon Thursday, when the 113th Congress was sworn in, the indefatigable Kucinich found himself unceremoniously booted back into the private sector. Whatever your views on the quirky, quixotic congressman’s politics—we are, after all, talking about a Dem who dreamed of establishing a Department of Peace and who fought to impeach Obama over the bombing of Libya—the House will be a duller place with his departure.

But Kucinich (who, you will recall, once claimed to have seen a UFO while hanging with Shirley MacLaine) is merely one of the memorable characters leaving us this week—and hardly the most colorful.

A gaping hole will be left on the congressional landscape with the retirement of Massachusetts’s Barney Frank. Brilliant, caustic, and somewhat terrifying, the razor-tongued Frank was a favorite among the political media, even as he insulted and abused them. For all his partisan bluster (and the man could bluster), the three-decade House veteran was a legislative pragmatist and universally regarded as one of the smartest guys on the Hill—a distinction that came in handy as the economy came crashing down around Washington toward the end of the Bush era.

Looking across the aisle: While his stay in the House was vastly shorter than some, Florida Republican Allen West will nonetheless be hard to forget. Whether it was accusing the congressional progressive caucus of being bona fide communists or slamming DCCC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as “the most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives,” West set a standard for bombast that will be hard for the incoming Congress to live up to.

While the Senate tends to be stodgier and more low-key than the House, it too is losing some notables. One of the last moderate Republicans on the national scene, Maine’s Olympia Snowe is hanging up her spurs. On the other end of the GOP spectrum, Jim DeMint—a Tea Party darling and perpetual thorn in the backside of his party’s leadership—is decamping to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Joe Lieberman’s exit at last closes the book on a long, drawn-out political fall that began a decade ago with the Democrat turned Independent’s championing of the Iraq War and culminated with his endorsement of John McCain for president at the 2008 Republican convention.

As for Scott Brown, the genial Republican who caused such an uproar by capturing Teddy Kennedy’s old seat in a 2010 special election: his ouster by Elizabeth Warren will deprive the upper chamber of arguably its best hair and certainly its finest set of abs. (Though perhaps only briefly, as Brown has his eye on the seat being vacated by soon-to-be secretary of state John Kerry.)

As we say our fond farewells, however, there’s no need to get bogged down in nostalgia. Change is a necessary part of life, even in hidebound Washington. And there’s little doubt that the incoming wave of lawmakers contains some fresh new faces that will prove just as exciting and unforgettable as their predecessors. God help us all.