By Betsy Rothstein - 10/01/08 05:40 PM EDT
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) is wholesome, the kind of man who shines his apples before he eats them.
I recently met the congressman and his flack, Andrew Savage, for lunch at Pete’s Diner & Carryout on Capitol Hill. Along with a photographer, we stuffed ourselves into one of the diner’s tiny wooden booths. Welch, who fits easily given his small build, frequents the no-frills place, joking that he holds his most “important meetings” at the establishment.
Welch’s breakfast can vary based on how far he runs in the morning. Some days he simply has yogurt at his desk. His breakfast of choice? “I get two eggs over easy and, depending whether I ran enough, hash browns and toast.”
At 61 he is thoughtful about his food intake and tries to be disciplined in his ways. “If I did not [run enough], I lay off the hash browns,” he says.
Like his eggs, Welch is easygoing in his manner.
But don’t hide the Vermont pale ale. “I run so I can drink beer,” he says, citing his favorite brews as Long Trail and Otter Creek Pale Ale.
Lunch for Welch is all-American. “Turkey with mustard, sometimes tuna and fruit,” he says.
But come dinnertime, watch out.
“I’m fairly careful in the morning [but] I lose my discipline over dinner. I can’t figure it out,” he says.
He admits this pitfall: “I don’t have enough discipline to maintain my eating habits throughout [the day],” he says, admitting that on occasion he indulges in Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream just before bed.
And then, as if to scold himself but also warn others, he says, “Beer, ice cream, snacks. You have to be careful. That has a way of catching up with you.”
Today is a good eating day for Welch — a feast, since he put in a lengthy morning run. “I’m going to have your fresh baked turkey special,” Welch politely tells the waitress.
The freshman lawmaker has a folksy, unintimidating look. He’s slim and slight with grayish white hair, matching untamed eyebrows and water-blue eyes that come together to make him the friendly version of grouchy “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David.
Today he wears a dark blue suit with a light blue button-down shirt and slightly askew red tie. But one easily envisions him walking down the main drag in his hometown of Heartland, Vt., wearing jeans, boots and a flannel shirt while accompanied by his dog, Pepper.
The Chow-Shepherd mix is a constant in his life, a best friend of sorts in a town that famously says, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
The problem is, Pepper is not a big fan of Washington. “She’s gaining a little weight,” the congressman says. “She’s still quite handsome. She doesn’t like Washington.”
How does Welch know this?
“I understand her,” he says. “She doesn’t like the heat. She goes on strike. She sits down. She doesn’t like to fly.”
Welch is more adaptable.
“I received a lot of instruction in proper behavior from the sisters of St. Joseph,” he says, referring to his Catholic schooling. His sister, who is five years older, is a nun living in Delaware.
He is all for the ladies of the cloth. “I had a very positive experience with the nuns,” he says, stressing that he received a “really good education” from “really smart women who were nuns.”
But this doesn’t mean Welch has always walked a straight and narrow path — he hasn’t. “I was pretty independent,” he says of his young adulthood. At 21, he left his parents’ home in Springfield, Mass., one evening without telling anyone and hitchhiked to Chicago to work for the civil rights movement. “I didn’t follow all the rules, just kind of did things my own way.”
Between his sophomore and junior years, he dropped out of college at Holy Cross to fight for civil rights. “My parents flipped out about me dropping out of college,” he says. “Yeah, he [my dad] was upset, as was my mom. I thought they were crowding me. I was doing a good thing.”
Another rebellious time came when he went to South America on a six-month backpacking trip. “I hitchhiked across Brazil,” he says, recalling that his girlfriend at the time dumped him in Peru. “I’m still trying to figure that one out,” he says, noting that what happens in South America, stays in South America.
During his junior year, a priest facilitated his transfer to Loyola in Chicago. He switched again as a senior and returned to Holy Cross. After graduation in 1969, he was chosen to be in the first class of Robert F. Kennedy Fellows, a program that gave stipends to young people doing civics work.
Welch’s Thanksgiving feast arrives. “This is not my usual lunch,” he says. “This is a feast.” He reasons, “I’ve got to let people know I can eat.”
Like everyone who eats, he has his own unique way of doing it. He stacks up the green beans on a fork and begins eating. He moves to the turkey and digs in to the messy fare, only to return periodically to the green beans.
“It’s pretty good, probably enough for three days,” he says.
Despite his upbeat attitude, there is one facet of Welch’s life that reveals some sadness: His wife, Joan, died from cancer in 2004. “I was very lucky,” he says, mentioning a 30-year marriage that included four stepchildren and one son between them. “I had a very successful marriage. I miss her.”
Here in Congress, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) looks out for him. The congressman volunteered on his campaign in 1974, walking door-to-door delivering leaflets. Since he arrived in Congress, Leahy has taken him on a Middle East congressional delegation trip.
The meal is almost over and it’s becoming clear that the congressman is particular about his potatoes. He leaves a lonesome mound of mashed potatoes on the plate, but near the meal’s end steals curly fries off his flack’s plate.
“Put it in the middle,” he orders (politely) of his aide’s plate of fries.