By Brendan Sasso - 10/02/08 05:42 PM EDT
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is particularly fond of Alice in Wonderland.
The second-term senator has referred to the children’s book at least nine times in recent years, comparing it to people or events he finds strange.
“They read like an Alice in Wonderland tale,” he said in March 2007, in reference to Justice Department documents about the firing of U.S. attorneys. In September that year he said, “It is Alice-in-Wonderland logic to say that when the Chinese manipulate their currency, it helps our exports.”
During the debate over last year’s immigration bill, he asked, “Are we in Alice in Wonderland?”
And on the government’s treatment of enemy combatants, Schumer said in January last year, “Kafka-esque doesn’t do it justice. This is Alice in Wonderland.”
In more than 25 years in Congress, Schumer has earned a reputation for using colorful and sometimes quirky language as much as for seeking publicity. Perhaps the two penchants go hand in hand.
“I’m from Brooklyn. Sometimes it helps me, sometimes it hurts me,” he said through an aide. “But if I tried to not be from Brooklyn, I’d be worse than whatever I am.”
As for his repeated references to the Lewis Carroll work, Schumer said, “Alice in Wonderland is just wacky. I like 1984 too, but it’s too political.”
Schumer flat-out enjoys some words and phrases at which other lawmakers balk.
During the Wall Street bailout debates, he defied Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) dislike of the word “tranche,” which many lawmakers were using.
“I hate the word ‘tranche,’” Reid said last week.
Schumer reasoned that Reid didn’t like the term because he thought Americans wouldn’t understand it. “We’re now trying to call it installments, but tranche is such a fun word to say,” Schumer quipped the following day.
What’s his technique in choosing colorful wording? “These things just pop in my head,” he said. “Language is fun. I’m kind of spontaneous.”
When asked if this spontaneity ever stresses out his staff, he replied that his chief of staff, Mike Lynch, has three rules for public speaking:
1. No singing.
2. No dancing.
3. No hats.
Fellow New Yorker, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D), said Schumer’s style endears him to voters.
She pointed out that he is a “highly respected” senator. “His wit is what he is known for,” she added. “But there is an intellectuality with that wit. He is seen as a defender of New Yorkers with that wit.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) concurred, saying, “He’s a real fighter for New York … very genuine, very passionate.”
In a Sept. 14 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Schumer said twice that Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is trying to campaign as a “new broom that sweeps clean”—an expression meaning she wants to be a reformer.
But perhaps Schumer does have something in common with Palin — a folksy style. “I think he speaks in a way that people understand,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “He speaks in a way that moms at home get. It’s very compelling.”
Even Republicans, though they may disagree with his politics, can appreciate the way Schumer speaks.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said, “ It’s part of his personality. He’s very clever. He can really turn a phrase to make a political point — it’s very effective.”
Last week on NPR, Schumer promised that the Senate will not “Christmas-tree” the bailout bill, meaning they will not hang unrelated earmark amendments on it like Yuletide baubles.
During Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2005, Schumer said of the job, “I cannot think of a more awesome responsibility; awesome not in the way my teenage daughter would use the word, but in the biblical sense of the angels trembling in the presence of God.”
In an October 2005 appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Schumer discussed the possibility that Vice President Dick Cheney was involved in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. “The president ought to do his own internal investigation … and if need be, take the vice president to the woodshed,” Schumer said.
In the same interview, Schumer compared the leaking of Plame’s identity to “kneecapping” — shooting a person in the knee, a form of punishment or torture common in mobster films.
Over the years, Schumer’s colleagues have joked about the senator’s love of the spotlight. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) famously once warned that the most dangerous place in Washington was between Schumer and a TV camera.
In 2004, then-Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) got himself in some trouble with Schumer when he said, “Frankly, sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey. Take a little bite of it and he will throw his own feces at you.”
Schumer’s opponent in his 2004 reelection campaign, state Assemblyman Howard Mills, said he would “plant 25 trees to replace the trees killed … to print Chuck Schumer’s press releases.”
Schumer’s idiosyncratic speaking style endears him to his New York constituents, said Manhattan-based Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
“A lot of New Yorkers use colorful language — he’s right in line with the rest of us,” Sheinkopf said. “People see him as interesting, colorful, dynamic — and his numbers show it.”
Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon said the senator’s quirky language is a way to communicate with average people. When asked if the senator’s staff helps plan any of his expressions, Fallon laughed and assured, “Oh, it’s him.”