Lunch is no time for small talk

MILL HALL, Pa. — As Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) arrives for lunch at Ruby Tuesday in a red Yukon SUV, there is a grin across his 67-year-old face. As his longtime friend and driver, Joe Fadden, pulls into a parking space, the lawmaker waves.

He looks spry and jaunty in his dress slacks, light gold shirt and a colorful tie that looks as if it had been designed by an abstract expressionist. With his neatly combed gray hair, gold-framed glasses and slightly larger-than-average build, he is a fairly handsome legislator.  

He reaches out a neighborly hand, flashes an old country politician’s smile and with hearty confidence says, “I hear you recently had a baby boy!”

“That’s true,” I reply, remembering having mentioned as much to his press secretary the day before. Peterson’s charm works as, presumably, it is meant to.

“Oh, I recall those days,” Peterson, a father of one, continues. “Trust me, you’ll always remember ’em.” And with that he formally introduces himself and Fadden, and we go inside.

It is noon on a raw, gray October day in Mill Hall, a bleak little town near the eastern edge of Peterson’s mostly rural and abundantly Republican 5th Congressional District, but we are greeted instantly by a middle-age hostess positively full of sunshine.

“Hi! Welcome to Ruby Tuesday’s!” she chirps. “I hope you gentlemen didn’t get too wet in all that rain out there today!” Beyond the window, the lightest mist imaginable has been falling for the past two hours. “Would you like a booth or a table today?”

Peterson extends a firm hand accentuated by a large, gold pinkie ring beset with his birthstone, a hefty chunk of blue topaz. And with a practiced smile, he brightly announces his presence: “John Peterson. A pleasure to meet you.”

“Well,” says the hostess, obviously pleased by Peterson’s show of down-home congeniality, “that’s certainly a nice tie you have on, sir.”

Peterson nods, says nothing and continues to smile.

“So,” the hostess persists after about five seconds of silence, “would you prefer a table or a booth?” Peterson states his preference for a booth.

We choose the salad bar, which is simpler than selecting one of the roughly 10,000 items on Ruby Tuesday’s menu. Plus, no one in our party is very hungry, so light fare seems suitable all around.

Between ordering and actually sauntering over to the salad bar 15 feet away, Peterson gets down to business, declaiming for 10 minutes on the issue closest to his heart: natural gas. He contends that the soaring cost of natural gas in the United States is bound to drive American businesses and jobs to foreign countries where it is far cheaper.

With that general thesis in mind, and an impressive and stupefying array of supporting facts, figures and anecdotal evidence, Peterson is co-sponsoring legislation to allow private corporations to drill for vast reserves of natural gas in protected waters off the coast of Florida and elsewhere.

Increased supply would reduce the price and save thousands of American jobs, he says, adding, “Natural gas is the energy issue that’s killing America. I’ve been talking about this for three or four years. For some reason, this nation has not been listening. But I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to hang on to this issue like a bulldog.”

And for the next hour at least, that’s exactly what he does, even as he sips iced tea and pecks at his lunch. Wherever the conversation roams, invariably it is led back to riffs about the need for affordable natural gas. His sales pitch is obviously honed by much repetition and is unrelenting. Efforts to steer the conversation toward less pressing and grave matters are unavailing.

On his plate, Peterson fashions not just a salad but also a small work of culinary art. Slices of mandarin orange, chunks of pear, sweet pickles, peas, mushrooms, two kinds of lettuce and a dollop of honey-mustard dressing are arranged and blended just so. He seems pleased to be complimented on it, and it is unsurprising to learn that the lawmaker is an avid flower gardener.

Peterson lives with his wife, Saundra, and golden retriever Milo in an old, 15-room house in Pleasantville, a sleepy little community in northeast Pennsylvania not far from Titusville, where he was born on Christmas Day, 1938.

On 2 acres of land that surround the house, he tends 238 rose bushes. Before winter sets in, he intends to plant 2,000 tulip bulbs. How does he find time for all that gardening? “I don’t golf,” he says with a laugh.

He has other interests, naturally, most of them typical of a man who has lived all his life in rural Pennsylvania. He’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and he enjoys hunting. Sadly, these are not things he cares to discuss at length over lunch.

So we dine amiably at cross-purposes — I wanting to hear about rose bushes and what he does for kicks on Saturday nights, he intent on solving America’s next great energy crisis.

Fair enough. Peterson is a politician who wants to get something done, and he does not want small talk to get in the way.