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Food for Thought

"Are you a judge?" Vicki Miller, wife to Republican Representative Jeff Miller, asked me, holding out a tiny, oily crab cake. I shook my head, and her face fell a little. "Are you a food critic, at least?" She was trying to keep me from drifting to some other legislator's treat at the March of Dimes congressional charity cook-off on Tuesday night--where, under the vast, celestial dome of the National Building Museum, nearly 30 congressmen parked themselves behind booths and proffered favorite recipes for chef judges and thousand-dollar-a-head guests. To the bluegrass tunes of the Capitol Country Band, Trent Lott--strapped proudly into an apron--sashayed over to sample Lamar Alexander's "BLT bites"; adoring crowds of White House Fellows queued up to heap praise on Dick Lugar's taquito recipe; and Miller explained why she felt no shame in aggressively hawking her crab cakes to the judges: "It's the only vote you can buy!"

Back when they were private citizens, these guys could just donate to charity. Now, as congressmen, they go to extremes: While they're able to craft laws that help charities (many of the cook-off's participants were involved with last year's March of Dimes-supported bill to prevent premature births), they're also expected to humiliate themselves regularly for the greater good. A month ago, I watched freshman Democrat John Yarmuth get into a pig costume and wag his butt at thousands of guffawing constituents to benefit childrens' theater. Last week, it was a team of mostly Republican House members getting their asses kicked by Georgetown Law professors in a basketball game to fight homelessness. And Tuesday, to help preemies, Idaho's Senator Larry Craig (who, it should be noted, wanted to keep the French out of Iraq after the invasion) gamely donned a red beret and sash, propped up a Basque flag behind him, and served up stuffed piquillo peppers in honor of Idaho's Basque immigrant community. "Let's put a little sauce on it for ya!" he cries, really getting into it, like a child at his school's International Day.

Even this bizarre environment frequently reflects how Congress works: While the Democratic leadership skipped the cook-off, popular Republican leaders turned out in force, and staffers and corporate execs sought them out as though they were handing out earmarks instead of canapés. For making K Street alliances, no time is too weird a time. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, looking dazed behind a peach-garnished wok, had set his hand on auto-shake. Darting in, lizard-like, at the line of guests waiting to try his fried peach pies, he ensured that nobody got dessert without glad-handing. At the next booth, Representative Joe Knollenberg's wife waited for somebody to show an interest in her Michigan mushroom nut paté. "I feel like I'm next to a goddamn rock star," she said, rolling her eyes.

As ever, some politicians are aloof toward their plebeian supplicants. Others love the game: Louisiana's Jim and Johnette McCrery were nowhere to be seen, and a grim-faced waiter doled out their crawfish etouffée; but Missouri Senator Kit Bond could be found restlessly prowling the crowds. "Bond. Kit Bond," he introduced himself (really). While most other legislators insisted sweetly that they didn't really care if their dishes won, Bond didn't have time for bull: He was going around methodically, he explained, to "see what the competition is."

These events are often billed as much-needed doses of bipartisanship. (Surely we're in late-stage civilizational decline if our prime example of a bipartisan happening is a cook-off). But, wandering between congressional charity events in the past couple of months, I can see how this actually works: Lott was a friendly and generous cook. At that congressional basketball game last week, two friends working for a liberal presidential campaign and I developed an irrationally tender feeling toward the boyish Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who was making some great baskets and comporting himself like a gentleman on the court. (Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, on the other hand, threw himself around aggressively and seemed to be suffering from a wardrobe malfunction involving his West Point gym shorts.) "I think I really have more sympathy for Flake now, as a legislator," said one friend, wonderingly.

Hollywood and Congress have grown apart since the Clinton years, but events like the charity cook-off make it easy to see how George could ever have existed. Among their devotees, after a few glasses of wine and some camaraderie, congressmen stop seeing themselves as hard-headed political warriors and more as celebrities. As the night wore on, the lawmakers and guests settled down at their tables for a real catered meal. The House chaplain somberly asked God to bless the "celebrity chefs and celebrity judges, as well as composers and players of country music." Later, the emcees--an odd bunch that included Norm Mineta--give out awards: The "Health and Happiness" award for the best nutritional dish went to Kansas Representative Todd Tiahrt and his wife, Vicki, for their watermelon soup. The Tiahrts' table exploded into laughter and applause as they made their way up on stage, accompanied by Academy Awards-style strains of Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon."

"It was a surprise," said Vicki when she returned to her table, clutching her prize: a Tiffany's pitcher nestled in a baby-blue box. All around her, beaming Boeing execs--Todd used to work for the company--were toasting the Tiahrts with martini glasses full of the pink soup. "It's very exciting," Vicki went on. "Cybill Shepherd is here."