POLITICS SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
The congressman is nearly in tears--his face crumpled and voice cracking. This was hardly the response that I anticipated when I asked freshman Democrat Alan Grayson a banal question about adjusting to life in his new job. "Personally, it's extremely difficult for me to be away from my family," he started. That's when he started to swell. As he came unglued, I cast a nervous glance at his aide. The least she could do was hustle him from this awkwardness. But she just fidgeted with her PDA, as if this wasn't his first outpouring.
For the record, this was the first of five times that he would choke up during our 70-minute interview.
The congressman from Disney World is something of a cult hero--a darling of the liberal blogosphere. A few years back, he was known for cruising around his Orlando district in a Cadillac with a bumper sticker that blared, "Bush Lied, People Died." And, as a member of Congress, he has taken a series of strong positions that have made him a tribune of The Huffington Post set and a YouTube sensation. He has voted against supplemental funds for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars--and hurled invectives at Ben Bernanke, when the Fed chair testified on the Hill. "Is it safe to say that nobody in 1913 contemplated that your small little group of people would decide to hand out half a trillion dollars to foreigners?" Grayson snarked to the central banker.
His brief tenure in Congress is a novel experiment. Other members of Congress have shared the liberal blogosphere's ideological predispositions. But Grayson is the first member to bring the blogosphere's in-your-face style to Capitol Hill. It has made for one of the more, well, interesting clashes of cultures in recent congressional history.
The blogosphere is the medium of the outsider--the self-consciously rambunctious truth-teller holding the dissembling establishment to account. That's the very essence of Alan Grayson, the way he tells it. A kid from the Bronx, he raced through Harvard in three years, paying his way by literally cleaning toilets. Running a calling-card company and making a wise investment in the Indonesian franchise of KFC helped make him independently wealthy.
Yet he felt the pull of politics. And, with his Harvard law degree, he became a specialist in using the False Claims Act to represent whistleblowers suing companies suspected of defrauding the government. More than that, he became a specialist in suing contractors deployed in Iraq. He won a ruling against the security firm Custer Battles, which had overcharged the government, for a $10 million triumph (though squabbling over that number has continued in the courts). Vanity Fair profiled his efforts to redress what he then called "the crime of the century," and The Wall Street Journal described him as "waging a one-man war against contractor fraud in Iraq." (Another of his clients sued her employer, a defense contractor, that she alleged had failed to provide protection against bird poop in Iraq. "It was like snow. You could shovel it," the plaintiff told the St. Petersburg Times.)
His Iraq work, however, provided Grayson with ample leitmotifs for his 2008 run for Congress--his second try. His ads in some ways resembled a rap video: pulsing music, flashy editing, with Grayson standing next to a briefcase full of cash in an empty airplane hangar. Only Grayson wasn't bragging about all of his gouda--he was promising to jail the greedy war profiteers who stole it from the government. Blogger Howie Klein began posting the ad on his blog Down With Tyranny, as well as on Daily Kos and The Huffington Post. The video went viral. "Hell yeah, that's the kind of ad all Democrats should be running," one commenter posted to the YouTube thread. "Grayson freakin ROCKS!" said another.
Shortly after taking office, Grayson--recognizable on the Hill for his 6'4" frame, which fills his pinstripe suits and flamboyantly mismatched shirts and ties--began making opposition to the bankers and regulators who precipitated last year's financial collapse the signature issue of his first term. He poached Matt Stoller, co-founder of the OpenLeft site and one of the netroots' most prominent liberal bloggers, to advise him on financial services. "Usually I have to push candidates to become more aggressive," Stoller wrote on his blog after meeting Grayson, "in Grayson's case, he pushed me." He has relished providing tongue-lashings to the likes of Timothy Geithner or Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. His grilling of Federal Reserve Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman was watched more than one million times on YouTube.
And, to his credit, his argument has taken hold--a Federal Reserve audit bill, once relegated to the margins of the Ron Paul fanatics, now has about 100 Democratic co-sponsors in the House. According to Politico, Barney Frank is now working with the sponsors of the bill to achieve more openness in the Fed. It's a development that pretty clearly wouldn't have happened without Grayson.
If Grayson's videos have become Internet hits, they weren't exactly random phenomena. His staff likes to upload them--and then make him available to discuss them on blogs like Firedoglake with commenters named "beerfart liberal" and "cocktailhag." Unlike other politicians, whose appearances on the sites only serve to highlight that they come from another planet, Grayson speaks their language. He even speaks their language when addressing the mainstream media--his public statements are rife with splenetic rhetoric and zingers. For example: "Rush Limbaugh is a has-been hypocrite loser, who craves attention. ... Limbaugh actually was more lucid when he was a drug addict. If America ever did one percent of what he wanted us to do, then we'd all need painkillers.”
The curse of bloggers is that they can never turn off. There's always another post to write, another enemy to engage. And even sympathetic colleagues have begun to fret about Grayson's work ethic and the energy required for maintaining such a steady state of high dudgeon. "He works late at night, early in the morning, and I'm just saying, you got to have some balance," Representative Corrine Brown told me.
But the bigger problem is that his method may be ill-suited to his Central Florida constituents. Before his victory, Republicans had held his seat for 24 years. And now, voters don't quite seem to know what to make of the new guy. Only about one-third of Grayson's constituents view him favorably, according to one poll, and Republicans are already treating his district like one of the easiest pickoffs for the 2010 midterms. Of course, Grayson isn't the type to roll over. He has an impressive personal war chest that his comrades in the blogosphere will likely help him fill--and the type of self-righteousness that keeps a man soldiering forward. When I asked him about his motivation, he cited the Book of Deuteronomy. "Justice, justice, ye shall seek," he intoned. It was an answer that moved him to the brink of tears.
Marin Cogan is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.