I have a question I like to ask journalist friends whenever they're stressed about misspelling the name of some obscure interest group flack or mistakenly writing percentage instead of percentage points: "Have you ever misidentified a United States Senator in a newspaper?"
I have. About two and a half months into my old job reporting on Congress for Politico, the newspaper for beltway insiders and obsessives, I was covering a Tea Party rally on the chilly grounds of the Capitol. Speakers passed around a bullhorn, straining to be heard above the wind and crowd. When I heard the rally leader announce Senator Jim DeMint, I lifted my tape recorder high to hear him. And I quoted him celebrating the Tea Party's success in securing the victory of newly elected Senator Scott Brown—noting, with a knowing wink to my readers, that Brown had just made clear that he wanted no association with the Tea Party movement.
The only problem, I learned when a perplexed staffer called my editor the next day, was that Jim DeMint didn't say that. In fact, he was nowhere near the rally that day. I was sure the rally goers had announced him wrong, or many of us had misheard, but the brutal truth was that I was the one who had incorrectly attributed to the senator the words of Tim Phillips, the Americans For Prosperity president. I probably should have been fired. But my editor, sensing my extreme mortification, let me off with a note about how I'd need to make triply sure it didn’t happen again. Which was a good thing, because I’d done something similar before, in my first week on the job. In the scramble to get quotes following the president's State of the Union address, I quoted a woman in Statuary Hall that I was sure was California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. The next day, I was less sure. After a good hour studying photos of the Congressional Women's Caucus, I had to confess, cheeks burning, that I wasn't entirely sure of the identity of the woman, and a correction was appended to my blog post. To this day, I have no idea who that mystery woman was.
It’s possible that I'm the world’s worst congressional reporter. But it's not just me. Nearly every reporter I got to know in my two years covering the Capitol has some cringe-worthy story of confusing the identity of a member of Congress. It’s easy to understand why it happens. Every couple of years, our schizophrenic electorate reshuffles the deck, casting out some of the middle to older aged white men who still overwhelmingly dominate the ranks of our Congress for a new class of middle to older aged white men (with some notable exceptions). Mistakes happen, and in today’s highly charged partisan atmosphere, where men of great self-import lob rhetorical bombs that ricochet through the political and chattering classes, members aren't usually forgiving about being misquoted or mistaken.
"You're a baldist!" The Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez remembers California Representative Brad Sherman saying when he realized midway through their interview that she thought she was speaking to Representative Pete DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. "Just because he's bald and I’m bald doesn't mean we’re the same person!" Another reporter remembers using a quote from a high-ranking Democratic Representative John Lewis, the celebrated Civil Rights hero from Georgia, delivered to him by a colleague for his story—and being embarrassed to learn, after the story appeared in print, that it was actually Representative Elijah Cummings, another bald, African American Democrat, from Maryland, who had given the quote. Yet another reporter recounts an exasperated Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, throwing up his hands and declaring to the reporters chasing him, "I am not Vito Fossella!" in the midst of a controversy over the former New York Representative's fathering a love child.
On a normal day, the life of a Capitol Hill beat reporter is not unlike that of a professional stalker: We lurk outside voting chambers, in hallway alcoves and beside the doors of basement conference rooms, hunting for unsuspecting targets whose voices will animate our stories. Often there's only one chance—a late afternoon vote series, a caucus meeting, a press conference on an issue we couldn't care less about—to grab them. And they're usually swimming in a school of people who look almost exactly like them.
Until recently, the only way for me to distinguish Representative Pete Sessions, the former National Republican Congressional Committee chair, from Representative Spencer Bachus, Republican of Alabama, was the strange orange-yellow tint of his hair. And thank goodness the now infamous former Missouri Representative Todd Akin is no longer around to be mistaken with the two. Who but the most practiced Congress watcher could remember that Representative Scott DesJarlais, the pro-life Tea Partier who apparently pressured his mistress to have an abortion, is just a touch more follicley challenged than his fellow member, Larry Bucshon of Indiana, and that both are taller and a touch more youthful looking than their Texas colleague Kevin Brady?
The list goes on: Sea of Galilee skinny dipper Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and his rebellious Tea Party colleague Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.). Eccentric libertarian Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). Representatives Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).
I sometimes even struggled to distinguish my own Congressman, the burly, Irish Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania from his colleague from across the state, the burly, Irish Pat Meehan. And then there are those people who look like they could be just about anybody--an indistinguishable face to go with an unmemorable name (I'm looking at you, representatives Tom McClintock, Robert Aderholt and Jerry McNerney.)
House administration is aware of how difficult distinguishing the 435 mostly white, mostly male members of the House can be (not to mention the overwhelmingly homogenous Senate), so at the beginning of each Congress they print a sort of yearbook containing the photo and basic biographical information of each member of Congress. But members often don't update their official portraits, and after many terms, as their jowls sink, guts expand and temples go white, they begin to look nothing like their official portraits. You'd never know from looking at recently retired California Representative Elton Gallegly's official portrait, for example, that he'd basically aged into Representative Hal Rogers's doppelganger.
So reporters find ways to adapt. Some hunt for quotes from the easily identifiable, often women and minorities. (Though such methods are not always foolproof, as my Sanchez mixup demonstrates.) I used to make notes next to the names of members I was looking for—intentionally sloppy so they wouldn't be legible to the member as we huddled over my notebook off the floor of the House chamber—of their distinguishing characteristics. "Bald. Bald with glasses. Combover. Close-talker." And there is this classic method, offered by a former colleague on the beat: "My trick is, when you're talking to a member and you don't remember who they are, you ask at the end of the conversation—even if you couldn’t give a shit—'And how will this affect your district?' So that way it narrows it down, and you can return to the picture book to look them up."
Of course, the politicians sometimes encounter the problem themselves. "You just do your best," says Mo Brooks, the Republican congressman from Alabama. "It happens to all of us. There are 435 house members, 100 senators, the president and vice president, the cabinet, the people you see a lot and the people you never see." Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a sophomore Illinois Republican, had his staff make flash cards with names and faces that he could study in his free time. The most practiced Washingtonians have a hyper-calculated greeting they deploy to elide the awkwardness of not remembering: They say "nice to see you." Not "nice to see you again," or "nice to meet you."
The difficulty of forming personal connections in the Capitol may be one modern side effect of a polarized electorate. "When I first came here I was determined to know who I was working with, and things were different back then," says Representative CW Bill Young. "I would go and sit down with a member on the House floor, introduce myself, find out who they were, get to know them, and get to know their interests. And I just did that for months. I kept it in my head because there weren't that many changes," he says. Though he wobbles with the help of a cane through the halls of Congress, Young is a constant presence—something of a fixture in this constantly churning government body. At 82 years old, he has spent more than 40 years in the House and is the Republicans' longest serving member. "Back then our debates were not rowdy, they were real debates on the issues, and a lot of members would come and participate and listen," he says, his watery blue eyes looking a little bit wistful, "the last few Congresses, there have been so many changes. It is not an easy task to get to know everybody, at least to get to know them well."
This year, though, there might be reason for hope. The newly elected freshmen Democrats, all 47 of them, might be smaller than the last Congress’s Republican class, but they are more diverse, as Nancy Pelosi would proudly tell you, with more women, African American, Hispanic, and gay members in their ranks. They even have a disabled woman veteran and the House’s first Hindu member.
Kyrsten Sinema, a new congresswoman from Arizona and the first openly bisexual person ever elected to the House, told me she wasn't worried about trying to learn all the new names and faces. As a professor at Arizona State University for ten years, she's had some practice. Her method? "I look at clothes--don't write that down," she said. Some members, like Texas Democratic Representative Pete Gallego, she notes, wear something distinctive, like cowboy boots emblazoned with the seal of Texas. Also: "Some men wear the same suit every day."
Marin Cogan is a contributing writer for GQ. Follow her on Twitter at @marincogan.