Tuesday, August 1, 2006

East Coast Trip part one

Andrew and I arrived at O'Hare airport at 4:30 am. That's right, I said 4:30 AM. We had a lot of equipment to lug and check, and Andrew wisely wanted lots of time to make sure it all made it. After all, our first interview was later that same day in Washington DC. We had a lovely breakfast at the airport McDonald's and soon were on our way out east. I've developed a small flying phobia in the last few years for no particular reason, so I battled my nerves as we headed out across Lake Michigan and I watched the Chicago lakefront skyline scroll by beneath us. It's the turbulence. As much as my brain tells me that the plane engineers knew about turbulence when they designed the planes and built them accordingly, when those bumps start something much deeper that my intellect starts saying "this is all wrong!"

But I made it. We hit Ronald Reagan airport and Andrew went to grab our rental car, generously donated by his brother. It was a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, and for once I was grateful for having an SUV. We met up with Luke who had taken the next flight, and by the time the three of us and all our gear piled in we were pretty tight. Monica was unable to attend the first part of the week and was scheduled to meet up with us on Friday in New York.

Our first interview was with Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico. We parked the car in a parking garage, did a quick clothing change, admired Luke's super-fly sunglasses, and went to the Hart office building in the swampy summer midmorning. DC was in the midst of intense rainfall and flooding, and the air was thick with moisture. We made our way to Senator Domenici's office, where we found the first clear evidence of seniority: his office was a sprawling multi-room affair with 12 foot ceilings and lots of artwork from his native state. His "people" greeted us, we waited a few moments, and then were shown in. The senator was not there yet, so we whipped out our gear and set up the camera, lights, and sound in near-record time. Finally the senator approached. One of his staffers (they all seemed to be Young Republicans either still in college or just out) came up to me and politely explained that the Senator was very keen on discussing his recent PACE initiative (which happened to be the same thing I wanted to talk to him about --- the report he had commissioned from the National Academies of Science which recommended increasing science and math in the classroom, ominously titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm"). She said she would be sitting in on the interview just to make sure the Senator... that he... just to be sure...

"OK," I said, a little unclear. "That's fine."

So she and another staffer sat in the large office as Senator Domenici came in. He had a huge desk and Luke framed it up nicely.

"Senator," the staffer said, a bit loudly and slowly, "they're here to talk to you about the PACE initiative."

"Right," the senator said. He was moving a little slowly, and seemed a bit small behind the desk.

I started right in with a question about the reasons why he had commissioned the report. I was interested in hearing him describe why it was that he felt so concerned about America's scientific position in the world that he commissioned an expensive study to recommend what to do.

He started speaking, and started squeaking.

He was rubbing his shoes back and forth across the footrest of his desk. Luke, who had the headphones on, later described it as if there were a clown just off-camera making balloon animals the entire time he was talking. Not wanting to startle him, I waiting until he finished, then casually said "Senator, do you ever, you know, just kick off your shoes while you're here in your office?"

"Do I ever!" he said gleefully, and kicked them off. Problem solved.

I had expected to get a lot of boilerplate Republican rhetoric, but I soon discovered a second example of seniority. Senator Domenici was born in 1932 and has been in the senate for 34 years, and he's beholden to no one. He was extraordinarily frank about what he thought about this administration's leadership in the field of science.

"I used to think he might be able to pull it out," he said. "But now I think it's pretty clear that this will go down as a failed presidency."

"Look," he went on, "I went in there and I told him he'd better get moving on the science and the math. Other countries are threatening us on all shores with economic and scientific progress."

"So, in the last State of the Union address," I asked, "when President Bush announced his new initiative to increase science and math in the classroom, you had some influence there?"

Then came the third example of seniority. He smiled a sort of wry smile as if to say "Influence, hell."

"That was all me," he said. "I told him to say that, and he did."

Later he said some very specific things about Fermilab, including an intriguing and almost cryptic remark about restoring Fermilab's budget. I tried to follow up, but he said he probably shouldn't say anything more about that.

His aides didn't have to jump in or correct him or spur him on, but I could tell he was getting a little tired and after one particularly well-turned phrase he said "thank you" and took off his microphone. Interview over.

We thanked him and quickly packed up. As we were working he called for "my staff lady." She came in. "No, no," he barked, "My other staff lady." I suspected the short-term things like names were a little slippery for him. When we left we thanked him again, and I noticed his shoes were still off.

Outside in the staffers' office his publicist quickly informed us that he would have to approve the interview. I hedged a little. This was not something we did. I told him it would be months before we knew what we would use. The aide was pretty firm, and finally Luke came up with the solution that we would send him the "selects," or the bits we planned to put in the final edit for approval. This seemed to be fine with the aide. It finally was made clear that they were nervous about that bit about restoring the Fermilab budget. "We can't be sure what that budget will do," the aide said. "The senator might not be accurate about that." He gave us a little look like "we never know what the hell the senator is going to say these days." We found them all to be very gracious and helpful, and the Senator was surprisingly frank and poignant. Like I said --- that probably comes with seniority. He was an old school senator --- the ones who actually believed in what they did.

OK, strike that cynicism from the record.

Next stop was Natalie Angier from the New York Times.

1 comment:

tickmeister said...

Sounds like senator Pete is a prime example of the value of term limits. I think I'll add that to the voter IQ tests in the new tickmeister central standard constitution.