The Magazine

The Full Schumer

The senator from New York and his imaginary friends.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

"Thirty years of retirement? How do we make sure we have health care? How do we make sure we have adequate income? And not just that, but it changes living patterns. People get married--are less likely to get married, and if they do, later; less likely to have children, and if they do, later; and these are just three of many, many instances where technology has changed the world.

"And for the first time," Schumer says slowly, "the average person in America, the average family, is looking for a little help."

Enter Charles Ellis Schumer.

He is nothing if not an overachiever. Born in 1950 and raised in Brooklyn, Schumer was high-school valedictorian and scored 1600 on his SATs. His father, an exterminator, never went to college, but Schumer arrived at Harvard in 1967, where he soon discovered politics. This was about the time that Sen. Eugene McCarthy was leading his antiwar children's crusade for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Schumer joined in the fun. He learned how much he liked politics and hated the radical left. "They were vehemently antiestablishment," he writes in his book. "They were so sure they were morally right that they could justify taking over buildings, shouting down speakers and rejecting electoral politics."

Schumer graduated from Harvard in 1971, but remained in Cambridge a few more years, earning a J.D. from Harvard Law. The way he tells it, returning to Brooklyn in 1974, Schumer informed his parents he would decline a full time job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm. Instead he would run for an open state assembly seat in his hometown district, the Forty-Fifth. His parents were unhappy. But Schumer plugged along, and won his first campaign. He was 23 years old. He has never been anything other than a professional politician, which might be the most important fact you will ever learn about him.

In 1980 Schumer ran for Congress and won a seat in the House that he would hold for the next 18 years. An accomplished legislator, he was one of the original sponsors of the Brady gun control bill and the 1994 crime bill. In 1998, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he entered a three-way Democratic primary in the race to unseat Senator Pothole himself, the Republican Alfonse D'Amato. Schumer beat his Democratic rivals Geraldine Ferraro and Mark Green, and went on to defeat D'Amato, in what was, up to that point, probably the nastiest and certainly the most expensive Senate race in American history.

Schumer, unlike D'Amato, may never leave the Senate involuntarily. In 2004, he was reelected with 71 percent of the vote--a record margin for statewide office in New York. Schumer says 40 percent of the New Yorkers who voted for Bush that year also voted for him. The same qualities that endear him to his constituents appeal equally to fellow Senate Democrats. He has shimmied up the slippery pole that is the Senate leadership, now serving in his second term as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman and vice-chairman of the Democratic caucus. It was in this capacity that he decided to write Positively American.

Actually, "write" might not be the best word to describe Schumer's creative process. A young man named Daniel Squadron did the actual writing, though his name is absent from the dust jacket. "I basically wrote it myself," Schumer told Publishers Weekly Daily in a recent interview, "in the sense that all the ideas were mine. I more or less dictated it, and then Daniel wrote it, put it in smoother language." Schumer is also quick to point out that his book is not exactly "nonfiction," in the sense of being strictly factual. "I don't carry a tape recorder everywhere I go," he writes in the introduction. "Nor do I keep a diary. I never have. In putting the book together, I relied heavily on my memory and, in isolated instances, took slight literary license to more fully describe a story."

The reader--at least this one--doesn't really mind such liberties. Instead one is bowled over by the force of Schumer's personality. He shares his weaknesses: "Having nothing to do brings out the worst in me"; "I'm just cheap." He describes what he was eating at any particular moment: beef on weck, "Brooklyn's own" White Eagle Sausage, Flutie Flakes, chicken wings, corn flakes, fried wonton noodles with duck sauce, almond cookies, hot and sour soup, cold sesame noodles, spicy Szechuan shrimp, string beans in black bean sauce, grilled octopus, Frosted Mini-Wheats, oysters, roasted corn--feel free to go get a snack--cheesecake and tiramasu, apple pie, pizza, sushi, empanadas, a "crispy Nathan's hot dog with a generous slathering of mustard," popcorn, and his wife Iris's sweet potato pie. He provides movie and vacation-spot recommendations: Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ("If you haven't seen it, you really should") and Monument Valley ("You should be sure to visit"). And he talks . . . well, let him tell it.

"The book is divided into two parts," Schumer is saying to the crowd at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. He is pacing back and forth on the stage. Sometimes he leans against the lectern. He has been talking for at least 35 minutes. Carla Cohen is looking anxious. Her plans have been upset. "The first part traces the political history of a family, and my political history," Schumer says. "The family is fictional. I call them Joe and Eileen Bailey. They are fictional in the book, but they are real to me. I have known them for 15 or 20 years. I talk to them, all my ideas I bounce off them; in fact, one of my press secretaries once got me in a little trouble because he told the press I had imaginary friends. But basically, whatever success I've had in my political career is because I talk to the Baileys. And I try to do things that matter to them. I wrote a law that made part of tuition tax-deductible 'cause I know the Baileys have trouble paying tuition. I wrote a law that made generic drugs available, because I know the Baileys have trouble paying for the high cost of drugs.

"And when I don't agree with them--I wouldn't agree with them, say, on affirmative action or the gay marriage amendment--I tell them why. I don't tell the New York Times editorial board--even though I get great support from them. I talk to the Baileys. And the first part of the book--let me tell you a little bit about the Baileys, so you get an understanding. He's an insurance adjuster, he makes about $50,000 a year. She works in a medical office in the neighborhood, she makes about $20,000. So, in New York they make $70,000 and in Mississippi they might make $50,000, but they're the same people. They are--they have three kids. They live in Massapequa, which is a suburb on Long Island, a middle class suburb, and . . . they're very good people. I like them. I admire them. I grew up with them. They're the salt of the earth."

They must also be in the Federal Witness Protection Program, because when Schumer first started talking about the Baileys last summer, they were named the O'Reillys. The slip is revealing, in its own way. Like their name, the very idea of the Baileys is elastic; Schumer's imaginary friends are able to fit any location, ethnicity, or social circumstance. In his book Schumer writes that the Baileys are also "the Hancocks of Cazenovia, the Thompsons of Laurelton, the Ramirezes of Port Chester, the Pachinskis of Cheektowaga or the Shapiros of Riverdale . . ." In other words, the Baileys are everybody--which is to say, nobody. Nonetheless, Schumer constantly wonders what all of these nobodies are thinking. And whadda ya know? With a few exceptions, they think exactly like he does!

One is tempted to conclude that, in its own fashion, Schumer's book serves as a metaphor for our federal government: After all, in it he finds ways to spend real money--yours--to satisfy the imaginary needs of people who do not actually exist. But that would do a disservice to Schumer's larger project, which is real and, if he would just stop talking long enough for people to realize it, important. The Democratic party, in Schumer's analysis, is paralyzed by the special interests that compose it. This paralysis extends from electoral politics--where feminist, labor, and racial grievance groups apply litmus tests that filter out heterodox candidates--to governance, where those same groups, and petty regional constituencies, inhibit legislators from crafting laws for the common good.

This is the sort of stuff that gets the Baileys upset. So, as Schumer recruited candidates to run for the Senate in 2006, he was unafraid to take on the major interest groups. He supported the pro-life Bob Casey Jr. over the objections of NARAL. Jon Tester in Montana and James Webb in Virginia both had positions on guns vastly different from those of the gun control lobby (and Schumer). All three candidates won. For Schumer, the lesson is that the party should stretch out to the center rather than cater to the activists who talk only to each other. It's a lesson that seems to have worked for the Democrats in 2006, and may work in the future--provided, of course, that the public doesn't tune them out altogether.

Which can easily happen when Schumer is doing the talking. "Here's something else about the Baileys," he tells the audience at the synagogue. "They dislike very much the people at Enron who stole all that money. But they hate the people who burn the flag even more. Most liberals don't understand that. They say, 'Why does burning the flag hurt you?' Here's what they think: They say the people who did Enron were in excess of something that isn't bad--which is working hard, making a lot of money, building up a company. They just crossed the line--they don't like them, they should be punished, they're hurting me.

"But the people who are burning the flag are telling the Baileys I dislike you and everything you stand for. Because the Baileys identify with America. And they identify with all the things America stands for. And they can't understand why someone would take the freedom that we have in America to step on America.

"One other thing about the Baileys, this more fundamental than the other two--but we have like a 10-page description of them which I think you'll enjoy reading. . . ."

A Schumer aide holds up five fingers, signaling to her boss that it's time to wrap up.

". . . They believe in their gut in both capitalism and democracy," Schumer goes on. "And what do I mean by that? If you think about it, capitalism and democracy have a similar credo: which is, do something to benefit yourself, and the greater good prevails. Democracy--you're not supposed to vote someone else's interest, your supposed to vote your own self-interest. That's how democracy started. . . ." He looks at Carla Cohen. "I'm going to take a little more than the 20 minutes if you don't mind."

Carla is silent. The aide slumps in her seat and checks her BlackBerry.

Schumer has been talking for almost the full hour. "And . . . um . . . I even told the candidates who the Baileys were, and I said pick the Baileys of your state and talk to them. Don't talk to the special interest groups--the Baileys, by the way, feel most of government never talks to them. And they're right. They're tired of people talking to special interest groups, to lobbyists, to the media, to one another--talk to me! That's what I've tried to do in my political career, at least, I think, more than many." He starts talking about his policy proposals, then turns once more to Carla. "Let's see how long I'm going."

"Long," Carla says, shaking her head.

"Long. Okay, Miss Candor. I just called her Miss Candor. Carla Cohen says I'm going too long. First goal: raising math and reading scores by 50 percent. . . ."

Audience members with copies of Positively American on their laps flip to the table of contents. They study the pages before them. A look of horror spreads across their faces. Because this is only the beginning. The senator has ten more goals to go.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.