The Magazine

The Full Schumer

The senator from New York and his imaginary friends.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Carla Cohen is a co-owner of Politics and Prose, a fashionable independent bookstore in Northwest D.C. When her store brings in local or visiting authors, Cohen often serves as emcee. Her plan for this evening is straightforward. She will introduce tonight's speaker, Senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the third-most powerful Democrat in the Senate. Then Schumer will spend 20 minutes talking about his new book, Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time, before spending 20 minutes taking questions from the audience, thus leaving an additional 20 minutes or so for the book signing and reception. It's a good plan; there's only one problem: Chuck Schumer has never met a time limit he didn't exceed.

It's a special occasion. A while back, Sen. Schumer called the store and asked for Carla. They had never met. I have this book coming out soon, Schumer said over the phone, and I want to talk about it at Politics and Prose. Problem was, Carla Cohen told the senator, the store was booked for February. So they settled on a new location: Washington's Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, a recently refurbished space in Chinatown with salmon-colored walls and white molding and a large dome painted sky blue--where we all are now, February 7, around 7 P.M.

Cohen is at the lectern. Schumer is sitting in the front row. Then he joins Cohen on stage. "Sen. Schumer has had a marvelous career in politics," she is saying, "and it's not over yet."

"I hope not," Sen. Schumer says.

The audience members laugh. There are about a hundred of them, concerned citizens all, some in jacket and tie but most in wool sweaters with colorful prints, corduroy pants, and winter boots. Many of the ladies are wearing purple. Many of the men are wearing gray beards. Almost everyone has glasses. Almost everyone has wrinkles. And many have copies of Schumer's book. One lady, encased in a bright green sweater and blue pants, her blond hair cut short, is underlining passages as she reads. Sometimes she draws stars in the margin for emphasis.

"In 2006," Carla Cohen goes on, "Senator Schumer was the architect of the strategy for the Democrats in the Senate. . . ."

Hearty applause.

". . . The Democratic party has to be calm and centrist." Cohen is describing Schumer's approach to the election. "Let's not talk about the social issues, let's concentrate on the issues that appeal across ethnic and regional boundaries . . . and you all know what happened."

They sure do: The Democrats went from their lowest number in the Senate since the presidency of Herbert Hoover to a tenuous, 51-member majority. But the audience wants to hear what happened from the architect himself, the man in the charcoal pinstripe suit. Schumer thanks Carla, steps out from behind the lectern, and launches into a soliloquy, his voice as nasal and reedy and Noo-Yawk as ever, his phrases punctuated with snorts, sighs, and chuckles, his gesticulations frequent and unwieldy.

"Now I wrote this book Positively American, basically I guess, I'll give you the little evolution and then I'll get into the book," Schumer says. "First, because I believed that the 2008 elections would be seminal elections, and that George Bush and the Republican party were taking America in just a positively wrong direction. And that 2008 was a unique opportunity because it would be an election that could well be an election like 1932 or 1980, which sort of cemented politics for a generation. In '32 Roosevelt created a Democratic majority and in '80 Ronald Reagan created a Republican majority. And basically the middle class bought into the Reagan philosophy in 1980. But now they were up for grabs--now they are up for grabs.

"Why? Because technology has changed the world. In 1980 the middle class not only felt pretty good about itself, but about its future. Today, the middle class, they don't feel they're in terrible shape, and politicians who condescend to the middle class"--here he turns his voice into a spooky, ghost-like, patronizing whine--"Ohhh, you poor people, we'll help you . . ."

He pauses.

". . . The average middle class family doesn't like that. But on the other hand, the world has changed, and there are new challenges, all created by technology. Technology has created terrorism: Small groups of bad people are technologically enabled to do bad things in our country and we feel less secure about it. It's created one global labor market: where for many, many jobs we compete with the labor forces all around the world, and that makes us feel a little less secure. It also means that our children compete with the children in the schools in India and China, Brazil and Nigeria, and that too creates problems. Technology has allowed us to live longer--and . . . that creates all kinds of problems.