The aging surfer

Soviet mortar shells fell around Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) soon after he was elected to the House in 1988. The staunch anti-communist was busy running around in the craggy hills of Afghanistan with resistance fighters, on an exploratory fact-finding mission he undertook shortly before being sworn in as a member.

Now the aging congressman is a little more office-bound, even though he still indulges in his after-hours surfing habit.

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“I took a lot of risks in my first years of Congress,” Rohrabacher said in an interview in his Rayburn office.

Shrapnel from one of those Soviet shells hangs on his office wall, below a surfboard and a tapestry of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an iconic leader of the Afghan resistance. Back in the corner stands a cardboard cutout of James Dean, whom the staff has transformed into the bearded Dana Rohrabacher of earlier days, with a sombrero and Hawaiian pukka beads. If constituents come by when he’s not there, staffers introduce them to the cutout. The cutout is reminiscent of a younger Rohrabacher, before he got married and shaved his beard.
Rhonda, his wife, “sort of persuaded him to get rid of the beard,” said Don Ernsberger, the lawmaker’s deputy chief of staff and friend of 40 years. They bunk up bachelor-style when Rohrabacher’s not at home with his family.

The congressman this year celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary with Rhonda, who is also his campaign manager. She taught him to surf when he was campaigning in 1988, and he says that he has been on the board “every minute” since.

After nearly 20 years in Congress, the 60-year-old Rohrabacher has aged from a tequila-drinking bachelor to a husband and father of 3-year-old triplets, two daughters and a son. He doesn’t drink much liquor anymore, and when he’s not on the Hill, he’s with his wife and kids. At home, he says, he does baby chores because his wife has had to do them all week. When he tells stories about his past adventures, he will often include the words “before the babies.”
“I’ve wiped more poop than anybody else in this Congress,” he said.

The poop has held up some of his plans. As a man with a lifetime of adventures to tell, he is in the midst of writing a book. But that’s on hold until the triplets grow up and he has more time.

Time outside of home and work is spent mostly on airplanes, crisscrossing the country. Rohrabacher calculated that if he stays in Congress five more years, he will have spent three full years of his life in an airplane.

In the so-called golden years, before he got into politics, he would hang around in Southern California with John Wayne, who taught him the right way to drink tequila (ice, lime, no salt). With buddies like Ernsberger, Rohrabacher would road-trip to Mexico and camp in the desert. The two still make road trips to the North Carolina beaches, but the expeditions are fewer and further between.

“He falls asleep too much, so I do all the driving nowadays,” said Ernsberger. “In the old days we would make sure it was 50-50 driving.”

But the congressman isn’t sitting around waiting for his face to wrinkle. He and Rhonda take every minute they can to surf. He watches the waves from his Huntington Beach office, which overlooks the ocean. Tara Setmayer, his spokeswoman, gets calls from time to time in which she hears that he has just given a press conference in a wetsuit. He is serious about living surf culture.

“Surf music is not the Beach Boys,” he lectures. “It’s more like [the music from] ‘Pulp Fiction.’ ”

Speaking of films, Rohrabacher has written a couple screenplays of his own — action flicks. One he describes as “sort of a combination of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Rambo.’ ” The other is about a spy in World War II, titled “The French Doctoress.”

A family from Orange County strolls into his office. The congressman talks shop with the two boys, comparing the lengths of their long surfboards. It turns out they surf on the same beach. He gives the boys a surfer handshake and tells them he’ll see them out on the waves.

Orange County and D.C. are expensive places to live, and Rohrabacher will tell you that he’s “not a millionaire.” He says he and his family live in a modest home and watch their pennies. His mother’s inheritance gave him the money for a down payment on their home. Now he’s worried about a new bill, passed this past summer, which prohibits spouses from being paid for working on campaigns. He relies on his wife for in-house campaign managing, and says they need the income.

Although he’s more of a family man now, he still surrounds himself with hippie, eccentric characters — right-wing though they may be. Ernsberger is a declared libertarian, calling their office budget “stolen taxpayer dollars,” as well as a devoted Civil War re-enactment hobbyist. He has even taken the congressman to different battles.

Then there are Rohrabacher’s rock ‘n’ roll friends, like Sammy Hagar of Van Halen. Rohrabacher speaks of Hagar’s successful tequila brand, Cabo Wabo, with a touch of envy and admiration. Other confidants include Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, who now works in D.C. Baxter works as a defense consultant, serving on a congressional advisory board for missile defense.

Baxter and Rohrabacher didn’t meet at a concert, but at an election celebration for former California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991. Since then, they have traveled all over, from Panama to Cambodia to the Thailand-Burma border.

Baxter says Rohrabacher has good “street sense.”

“We’ve been in some situations that have been less than optimal, but made it out alive,” he says.

He doesn’t see an aging congressman, but someone who will always be a “freedom fighter.”

“He’s a man who’s true to his own heart,” says Baxter.

A Reagan-style conservative on many counts, Rohrabacher stands firmly against illegal immigration, arguing that it is destroying California’s diverse culture and causing spikes in crime and government services costs.

Yet Rohrabacher isn’t conservative on all issues — as seen, for example, by his support for the legalization of medical marijuana. He’s neither a party loyalist nor, for that matter, a conformist. He has been known to shop at Goodwill for his suits and shoes. He isn’t committed to the establishment.

“The Hill was worse then than it is now,” he said, speaking of Congress under Reagan. He is less cynical about the current legislative scene.

After 20 years in politics, he has seen some of his friends fall. Two friends, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R), both became embroiled in separate corruption scandals. About these friendships, Baxter declines to comment on where the congressman stands: “I respect his privacy on his feelings.”

But he does say that Rohrabacher trusts people, and believes in “the system, with all its flaws and problems.”
So does Baxter think the congressman has been naïve?

“I’m sure he has been … It’s a price you pay for being open,” he said. “We believe ultimately that you come out on the plus side.”

Rohrabacher has watched members come and go, administrations turn over and laws change. Although perhaps the congressman has never been close with President Bush, as a Republican he resents how he has handled the war in Iraq. But he says he still trusts his friends and relies on them — despite the hurdles life brings.

He laughs thinking about how things have changed, from his days playing chess with the king of Afghanistan in the 1980s to washing dishes in his self-described “Leave It to Beaver” house.

“It’s a totally different world and a totally different Dana.”