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The darker side of Rep. Adam Schiff

PASADENA, Calif. — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is not a bomb-thrower. And he’s not a partisan street brawler.
A fair-faced congressman from southern California, Schiff is a moderate, a compromiser, a man who chose law school over med school because he thought it would give him greater opportunities to serve the public.

PASADENA, Calif. — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is not a bomb-thrower. And he’s not a partisan street brawler.

A fair-faced congressman from southern California, Schiff is a moderate, a compromiser, a man who chose law school over med school because he thought it would give him greater opportunities to serve the public.

He is passionate about science education. He sponsors town-hall meetings on Darfur. He reads the classics for pleasure — he’s in the middle of what he calls his “Victor Hugo phase.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)

So there is nothing in the world that prepares you for the dark side of Schiff.

But it’s there.

Just ask Stephen Colbert.

Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” invited Schiff to be interviewed for a segment of his show called “Better Know a District.” The episode aired this past March, and anyone who caught it would have been impressed with Schiff’s game good humor in the face of Colbert’s comic insinuations about Schiff’s being a terrorist-pampering deviant who presides over a district ripe for a bird-flu pandemic born of wild parrots.

“It was a blast,” Schiff says with a chuckle.

The fun didn’t end with the Q-and-A. After an hour or so of taping — all of which was edited down into four cruel minutes of “gotcha” hilarity — Schiff was invited to finish the sketch by whacking Colbert over the head with a prop bottle. He accepted the offer, perhaps with relish, given the roasting he had just received.

But there was nothing showbiz about what happened next: The bottle had a sharp edge, and Colbert, slightly wounded, was hurried off to the nurse.

Now it’s at this point in the story that an ominous shadow falls over the congressman’s face.

“A lot of others have been interviewed on the show, but only one member has actually made him [Colbert] bleed,” Schiff says, his voice ringing with a steely “Dirty Harry” note of pride in the pay back. Colbert’s injury proved to be superficial.

Nestled up against the broad, green slopes of the San Gabriel mountains, the 29th District is an affluent splotch of solidly Democratic territory just northeast of Los Angeles. While it encompasses the film and television studios of Burbank and the mission-command center of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, making Schiff arguably the “Congressman for the Stars and Mars,” as he likes to say, there is little about Schiff’s demeanor or voting record that pigeonholes him as a stereotypical “West Coast liberal.”

For starters, Schiff does not demonstrate any kind of sun-glitzed flamboyance of crazy Hollywood pizzazz. Friendly, soft-spoken and intense in a studious kind of way, Schiff has a professor’s talent for answering questions in paragraphs of dense and careful argument, at times with such grammatical orderliness that you can almost see the punctuation floating in the air. This is especially the case when the conversation turns to America’s foreign-policy priorities, about which Schiff becomes downright passionate in his wonkishness.

After President Bush repeatedly invoked Harry Truman’s legacy in a Memorial Day speech, Schiff went on Fox News to offer a strenuous point-by-point rebuttal of any connection between the two presidents’ doctrines.

“I said let’s compare the president to Truman,” Schiff explains, brightly warming to his theme. “What alliances has he forged? Most of the alliances have been torn asunder. What institutions has he built up? Most of the institutions have been torn down under this administration. ”

Still, Schiff applauds the president for aligning himself with the Truman legacy. “Better late than never,” he says with a smile.

While he spent much of his childhood in California, Schiff was born in Massachusetts in 1960 to a family of mixed political parentage: his father is a Democrat, his mother a Republican.

Schiff is proud of his Republican roots, which run deep: His maternal grandfather was a Republican county chairman. Schiff hangs a prized picture in his office of his grandfather posed with Eisenhower and Henry Cabot Lodge wearing a “Win With Ike” button.

“My grandfather, I never heard him say ‘Democrat,’” Schiff reminisces. “It was always those ‘damn Dems.’”

However, for a child of the Kennedy era, public service was the calling, and the Democrats were the party. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Schiff took a job with the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles and made a name for himself with the prosecution of Richard Miller, an FBI agent caught in a sex-for-secrets affair with a Soviet honey trap named Svetlana.

Schiff is the first Democrat since 1932 to represent the region.

He was an eloquent booster of McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation, seeking to put limits on some of the very expenditures that swamped his own race against former Rep. James Rogan, whom he beat by three percentage points.

(Limiting expenditures is a point Colbert needled him on. Colbert: “Isn’t that the equivalent of sleeping with a prostitute and then strangling her to hide your shame?” Schiff: “Well … I wouldn’t want to say it like that.”)

Schiff says when his children get old enough to ask what their dad did when he was in Congress, he wants them to have a good answer.

He has two children: a daughter named Alexa and a son, Elijah.

“My daughter is 7. She’s an angel,” Schiff says. “My son is 3. He’s a menace to society.”

For the first years of Schiff’s House tenure, his family lived in California, but the prolonged absences prompted relocation to the Washington area.

“For those of us with small children representing a California district, it’s a bear,” Schiff says with weariness.”

No profile of the congressman would be complete without singling out the most salient and talked-over fact about Adam Schiff — other than his penchant for wounding celebrities — and that’s his wife’s name. Oh yes, it’s Eve.

“We got a lot of suggestions about what to name the kids,” Schiff laughs.

Cain and Abel — were they ever under consideration?

“They were not.”

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