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Rebel, Rebel

Republican campaign-finance agitator Christopher Shays has a reputation in Washington as a genuine Mr. Smith -- a testament to his skill as an actor, if not to his honesty.

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Chris Shays is a wily guy. He doesn't look it. Mild-mannered and polite, a Christian Scientist who doesn't drink coffee or raise his voice, the 56-year-old Connecticut Republican is the first person you'd ask to hold your wallet. He has that look: clean, like he takes a dozen showers a day and rolls in talcum powder after every one. Chris Shays doesn't give off shifty vibes.

Never judge a congressman by his cover. On the night of the campaign-finance-reform vote in the House a couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Shays on television. My first question was the obvious one: If soft money is so terrible -- and your bill is based on the premise that it is -- then why not ban it immediately? Why does your legislation allow soft money in this November's midterm elections?

It's a hard question to answer, and not surprisingly, Shays didn't even try to answer it. The remarkable part was how he evaded it. "You know, we have feedback," he said. "I can hardly hear you." And with that, he removed his earpiece, leaving me, in a studio across town, unable to ask him another question, or force him to answer the first one. Freed from the bothersome give and take of an interview, he began his speech: "I can't hear you, but the bottom line is, we are looking to ban corporate-treasury money and union-dues money, enforcing the 1907 law, the 1947 law, and then enforce the 1974 law that says 'no large contributions.' And that's what we're attempting to do."

The other guest, a fellow congressman who was sitting next to Shays, looked confused. His earpiece wasn't giving him trouble. He could hear everything clearly. And so, it turns out, could Shays. I checked later: His audio connection was fine. If there was "feedback," it wasn't caused by technical problems.

Pretty crafty. And doubly so, given Shays's reputation. You'd never suspect him of doing something like that. He's the shoplifting nun.

The next morning, the Washington Post was none the wiser. A fawning "Style" profile described Shays as a man with "the avuncular bearing of a beloved high school teacher -- a mentor who, in retrospect, might seem a little naive." Far from a calculating political operative, Shays, readers learned, is "slightly goofy, a man prone to giving surprise noogies on the House floor, hugging his fellow members, mussing their hair and breaking spasmodically into pitched giggles."

Shays did his best to remain in character. He told the Post that on momentous mornings he jogs to one of Washington's many memorials, meditating on the life of the statesman remembered there. The week of the vote on campaign-finance reform, Shays stopped at the Lincoln Memorial. There, at the nation's temple to fairness and political courage, "he read aloud from the Gettysburg Address in the dawn solitude." In case you missed the point, the headline summed it up: CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, THE GOP'S RELUCTANT REBEL; IRE OVER HIS SOFT-MONEY BILL IS ENOUGH TO MAKE HIM CRY.

Pretty amusing -- and completely, totally wrong. In fact, there has never been anything reluctant about Shays's rebellions. In 1998, he was one of five House Republicans to vote against every article of Clinton's impeachment. By itself, this is not an especially telling fact. Shays is from a swing district that generally supported Clinton. It was his flamboyant media-mongering that set Shays apart from less savvy moderates.

Early in the Lewinsky scandal, Shays announced that he planned to vote against impeachment. Then, days before the vote, he announced he was reconsidering. There's nothing more newsworthy than a vote in play, and Shays leveraged his. He invited reporters to accompany him as he staged one-on-one encounter groups with his constituents to talk about impeachment. ("What's been on your mind?" Shays gently asks. "You want to tell me how you feel.") He moderated a televised town-hall meeting in his district. More than 1,000 people came; Paul Newman couldn't get in. The following day, he requested, and got, a meeting with Clinton at the White House.

Shays quickly became famous, though he was careful never to seem pleased about it. He continued to play the role of the sensitive, world-averse artiste trapped in the body of a Connecticut congressman. He cried in public and boasted about it later. Conservatives were infuriated. Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter (who for a time talked about challenging him in the primary) called Shays a sissy.

It was a classic case of taking Chris Shays too seriously. It's not easy being a professional reformer in Washington, a city that isn't very corrupt and therefore not in desperate need of reform. To do it, you need a shtick. Shays has picked the Tormented Conscience of a Nation routine. It's the least appealing of all options.

And there are options, like the one taken by Marty Meehan, the Democratic co-sponsor of Shays's bill. Meehan has all the florid charm of the straightforward stereotype he is, the Irish Catholic sports fan-beer drinker from Mill Town, Massachusetts. (Meehan named his son Bobby, after RFK.) With Meehan, you can safely assume he's found some angle in campaign-finance reform. When he preens, it looks less like self-righteousness than like someone doing an imitation of it. It's entertaining.

Or, for pure entertainment value, no one beats John McCain. McCain often invokes Teddy Roosevelt when he talks about campaign-finance reform, and in at least one sense the comparison is fair. Like Roosevelt, McCain is drawn to reform not by the reforms themselves, but by what they represent. For McCain, campaign-finance reform isn't an end but a metaphor: the struggle of the little guy against the big guy, the special interests versus the people, the defenseless versus the bully. Trap McCain in a conversation about the actual details of campaign-finance reform and he soon loses focus. He's bored by it.

But he puts on a marvelous show. McCain understands that if you're going to play the reformer, sad-eyed disapproval won't do. You've got to pick up the hatchet. McCain does a terrific Carrie Nation impression. It's effective because on some level it's real. The senator has a genuinely bad temper. He is a genuinely tough guy.

During his first run for office, McCain learned that one of his opponents had tracked down his first wife, looking for dirt. According to a political consultant who worked for him at the time, McCain cornered the man at the next candidate's forum. "I want you to know," McCain said, "that, campaign aside, politics aside, you ever do anything like that again, anything against a person in my family, I will personally beat the shit out of you."

It's impossible to imagine Chris Shays threatening to personally beat the shit out of anyone. But it would be a lot easier to like him if he did.


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