Representing nerds, jocks, you name it

On Capitol Hill, dividing lines are naturally political: Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. They are not usually between jocks, bookworms and geeks.

But ask about lawmakers’ high school years and it’s another story.

Congress is a “Breakfast Club” of diversity. Many members fit high school stereotypes. “I was an athlete — school was simply necessary to be able to play sports,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “I survived high school only because my football coach was my chemistry teacher, my baseball coach was another teacher of mine, and they knew if I got D’s I wouldn’t be able to play.”

Some were rock ‘n’ roll kids. “I played guitar in a band,” said Rep. Timothy Murphy (R-Penn.). “We’d go through a name a week; every time we had a gig lined up we’d figure out a new name.”

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) said, “We did a little bit of cruising up and down the boulevard, chasing girls, kind of like in “Grease.” Sometimes we’d go to the drive-in movie theater. We’d all sneak in the trunk and then raise hell. It was mostly good, clean fun; my father was a two-star general and he’d have kicked my ass if I partied at all.”

Some congressmen were thoroughly studious. “I played clarinet in the band, had a dog,” said Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.). “I went to a very demanding public school, and took a lot of APs [advanced placement classes] and was on the debate team. It kept me busy.”

Many future lawmakers knew early that they wanted to enter political life. “I was always interested in politics,” said Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.). “I was brought up with it. I can still recall the last two Roosevelt elections. I didn’t find out until I was 12 that Irish-Catholic-Democrat wasn’t one word.”

Some were even more motivated. “I was a Senate page during high school; this is where I grew up,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). “My life was pretty much work, school, work, sleep. I knew back then that I wanted to be in politics, and that I probably wanted to return to the Hill.”

A surprising number of lawmakers enjoyed bucking the system. “I wasn’t very much of a student in high school. I was having too much fun,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). “I got into a little trouble during those years. As editor of the paper, I took on the principal in articles on a regular basis, and often wound up in his office.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) was something of a troublemaker. “I got called into the principal’s office a lot,” he said, “One time I remember was for handing out political literature on campus. It was advocating for the independence of Puerto Rico. He told me I couldn’t do that anymore, but I paid little heed. I thought it was a First Amendment right.”

Gutierrez acknowledged a tension between his job as a lawmaker and former self: “I used to loathe politicians, and obviously I have a pretty high opinion of myself.”

Gutierrez skipped his senior year: “I decided I’d had enough of it, took summer school, and got out early.” He isn’t the only dropout on Capitol Hill. “For economic reasons, I dropped out of high school and went into the service,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). “I convinced my mother it would be best for the family, and promised her I’d get my GED. I finished my GED before my high school class graduated ... .”

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) had a most unusual high school experience. “My dad ran for president my senior year,” said the lawmaker, who attended D.C.’s prestigious St. Alban’s school, alma mater of five other congressmen. “Everyone’s father was somebody important, which was a nice change after growing up in Chicago, and having everyone know who I was, as the Reverend’s Son, before I’d ever met them,” said Jackson.

He did not shy away from mayhem. “I stayed in trouble on a regular basis. I was an average student at best. ... I was suspended once or twice for having women in my room. My brother, who followed me to St. Alban’s, said that there were a laundry list of rules in his dorm, and none of them had been there until I lived there. Every rule was my fault.”

One conclusion can be drawn: At least in terms of high school cliques, Congress is representative of the people. Former jocks, nerds, greasers and troublemakers all serve their constituencies.