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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"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.