Scott Brown Is the Most _________* Man In America
*Fill in the blank. He’ll be whoever you want him to be.
The search for Scott Brown continues. Minutes after President Obama signs the House’s version of universal healthcare into law, the Senate Republicans meet for a lunch in a Capitol anteroom just off the Senate floor. They are a testy bunch. Few stop to talk about the monumental healthcare act, and of those who do, only Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine addresses questions in a tone warmer than outright derision. About the only Republican senator who doesn’t wade through the press scrum — he used a back door — is the same senator who, after the luncheon, slips away again: Scott Brown. One of Brown’s press secretaries, who himself comes to pace these august halls in search of his boss, assures that the new senator from Massachusetts will make himself available momentarily. But moments stretch into half an hour, and still no Brown. The press corps grows in number from two, to five, to more than a dozen, many of them silently furious at waiting this long, some now discussing openly what all of them want to know: What now for Scott Brown?
He’d staked a big chunk of his candidacy on the idea that his vote could derail Obamacare. And yet here is Obama on television, signing the House’s bill and smiling. Not exactly what Brown — or his many campaign donors, or the GOP — had in mind. No wonder the man is ducking out back doors.
Granted, it’s been a disorienting first few weeks for him, here in Washington. For his first major vote, on a jobs bill, Brown broke with his party and sided with the Democrats. The decision burned him among his right-edge constituency; they called him a traitor. A few weeks later, he hopped on a plane to Phoenix at the request of Senator John McCain — to appeal to that same demographic. McCain has a tough upcoming primary against an archconservative and thought he could use Brown. He thought right. Arizona’s right-wing Tea Party faction not only forgave Brown his jobs-bill vote, they adulated him. McCain tells this story about the plane landing in Phoenix to the sight of more people than he could have possibly expected — God-fearing, limited-government folk desperate to see the Republican oddity who filled Ted Kennedy’s seat. “He’s a national figure,” McCain will later say, before briefly casting his eyes downward, as if he, too, is attempting to understand it all.
Then there’s the media. Good lord, the media. The New York Times Magazine puts him on the cover and the accompanying story adores him as much as that infamous Cosmo spread did. Wolf Blitzer has him on The Situation Room, and Brown says aw shucks, he’s always wanted to be on the show — thereby ending the tough questions about healthcare reform. Barbara Walters asks him about running for president. Brown blushes and says, “I — I have to — I have to tell you: I don’t even have a business card.”
But he clearly enjoys the clamoring. That come-closer smirk of his on the cover of the Times magazine was, more than anything, an ex-model remembering how to position himself for the camera, a very knowing look. He openly seeks the public’s affection, and on this drawn-out afternoon outside the Senate chamber, it’s no different. Other senators, Democrats included, rush to avoid the media near the banks of elevators. (John Kerry, bad hip and all, practically gallops from the crush of reporters — and he voted for healthcare.) When Brown finally emerges, at 2 p.m., it’s as if he’s the headlining act. The throng charges, half excited to talk to him, half expecting him to carry out a duck-and-run like all the others. Brown just stands there, awaiting the jostling masses. The first thing he says is “Well, let’s just let everyone get settled.” He glances around — reporters shoulder to shoulder, microphones and digital recorders now thrust in his face. “Everyone settled? Okay. Great.” And then he smiles.
For the next eight minutes he parries, sometimes against his own record. He says the healthcare bill should be repealed — “It’s definitely not good for my state; it’s going to cost us jobs” — even though he supported a similar universal healthcare plan in Massachusetts in 2006. Asked if he needs to redefine his image now that nationwide healthcare is law, Brown says he ran on a “host” of issues not related to that seemingly definitive 41st “no” vote. “Just to say that it was all about healthcare, I think, is really not fair,” he says, going on to imply that he can now apply his nickname, “41,” however he wants, on any issue he wants. If he wants to be the 60th vote to secure the Democrats’ supermajority, fine. If he wants to be the 41st vote necessary to defeat that majority, well, that’s fine, too.
It’s an amazing performance, this verbal jujitsu. The more you observe him, the more you begin to understand what it means to be Scott Brown in Washington. He can vote for a jobs bill that will satisfy the Massachusetts moderates, and weeks later campaign as an archconservative in the Arizona desert. He can be a political comer despite his freshman status. He can make up an ideology as he goes along, couching his ad hoc approach as the workings of an independent thinker voting his conscience, even as one vote counters a previous one or stinks of political expediency. That’s the beauty of his improvisation: No one but Brown knows why he’s doing it.
He can, in other words, allow people to project onto him whatever they wish, to see in him whatever fits their ideology, because it’s all true.
He can remain a model to this very day.
Late the next afternoon, Brown looks as jittery as a freshman at his first high school social. Tonight will be his longest — and most significant — interaction with all his Senate colleagues. Although Obama signed the House’s healthcare bill into law, the Senate is meeting to make small changes. The Republicans will offer amendments, and if the Democrats accept any, which is unlikely, the entire measure will have to go back to the House.
Brown walks onto the floor at 5:30, wearing a red-and-blue patterned tie with a blue shirt and gray suit, as conservative a look as any other senator’s here. But he is not any other senator here. He is 20 years younger than most of them. (To see a convened Senate is to be reminded of the infirmities awaiting us all.) John Kerry’s hair is white now, and with every step he limps along on his recuperating hip. Olympia Snowe’s hunched back and gingerly steps have robbed her of grace. John McCain’s face is bloated and splotchy. Three more senators need the assistance of canes. Robert Byrd of West Virginia is too frail at 92 to even attend the session. Then there’s Brown, bounding down the Senate floor’s carpeted, gently sloped steps with his strong back and salt-and-pepper hair, taking a knee next to a Senate aide who tallies the votes of the Republicans in the room. In this crowd, he looks like Zeus.
He rises and begins to pace, a frowning seriousness to his face, as if that is what is expected of him. Many of his Republican colleagues are relaxed and chatting among themselves. A bit awkwardly, Brown approaches Pat Roberts of Kansas, an effervescent grandfatherly figure who’s been theatrical in his denouncements of the healthcare bill; and Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a bland man, not nearly as outsized as Texans might wish. Brown stands on the periphery of their conversation. Although he cosponsored an amendment with Roberts this afternoon (involving lowering taxes on medical devices), Roberts and Cornyn don’t invite him in. And so Brown steps back from their huddle as awkwardly as he’d drawn near it, and without anywhere else to go, he leaves by the side door.
It could mean nothing, this slight. The exclusion may not have even registered with either of the senators Brown approached. But what is clear, as the Republican amendments are defeated one after another, is Brown’s anxiousness on the Senate floor. He looks eager to impress people, to befriend them. And yet his discussions with the senators of his party are brief, and some seem cold. As the night progresses, Brown mostly votes and then retreats through two heavy rear doors, to a Republican cloakroom. It could very well be that he is speaking easily there with colleagues who have also stepped out of the chamber. (Indeed, he will later say he is.) But on the floor itself, by 9:15 p.m., with hours more work ahead, Brown sits at his desk in the left rear corner of the room, alone. On the night before the Democratic victory of a generation, Brown has come to look like little more than what he is: the most junior member of the minority party.
Yet the corner is the perfect spot for Brown. No corner has ever held him for long.
The territory of his rocky upbringing remains the most heavily traveled by journalists: his parents divorcing when he was one; the subsequent men that Brown’s mother brought into their lives and that beat her, and him; the welfare checks. It wasn’t until Brown stole a Black Sabbath record when he was 12 and appeared before a stern judge that he began to see a way into the open. In the grand sweep of his rise what’s often missed is the self-discipline he developed, which moored him and allowed him to reach for a future ever more distant and different from that mangy childhood in Wakefield.
In high school, as his buddies slouched through elective courses, Brown took Latin, because those classes would look good on a résumé. He signed up for the drama club not only because he liked it, but also because he knew it demonstrated a well-roundedness that college administrators might find appealing. He used basketball the way many disadvantaged kids do, as a means to a better life. When he joined the varsity team in his sophomore year at Wakefield High, he was a flashy showman on the court, which his coach, Ellis “Sonny” Lane, didn’t like. “The type of system we had was more of a team-oriented, disciplined type of ball,” Lane says. Rather than rebel against Lane, Brown saw the advantages of embracing his style. At the coach’s request, Brown spent hours working in the gym, alone, doing defensive slides, until he was exhausted.
The other players noticed Brown’s dedication, and soon he emerged as the team’s leader and, eventually, its cocaptain.
Off the court he led, too. Lifelong friend Mark Simeola says Brown was “one of the elders,” one of the few guys their clique listened to and respected. If you had a problem, you went to Brown.
At home, Brown had become the de facto man of the house. His mom, Judy, married four times, and none of those relationships lasted. Brown helped Judy and his younger half-sister in any way necessary. And every way was necessary. Brown took up karate so that he might better defend his mom from one abusive husband, says John Encarnacao, a longtime friend of Judy’s who later helped Brown enlist in the National Guard to pay for college.
Brown went to Tufts, which offered financial aid of its own and, just as important, was only a 20-minute drive from home. He majored in history, played basketball, and graduated in four years. He was an average student but made something remarkable of another opportunity.
Brown had done a little modeling work in college, and now, after graduation, his sister sent his photo to Cosmopolitan, for its 1982 Sexiest Man competition. What’s notable isn’t that Brown won and posed naked, or that his temperament synced with the vanity of the modeling world. It’s that Brown set aside the $1,000 prize for law school. The Cosmo spread launched his modeling career and he attacked the work with rigor, thinking of it as a means to an even better end than the money and parties and beautiful women he saw all around him.
He has said he made up to $1,200 a day (about $2,400 today) working thousands of shoots. But he did more than passively pose. He drove to clubs in Boston that paid him appearance fees to autograph his bare-chested likeness for the clamoring women in the crowd. “You can’t imagine how much flak he received from us,” says Bruce Cerullo, a lifelong friend. Yet the money paid Brown’s way through Boston College Law, what he really wanted. And somewhere amid the flashing bulbs of all those shoots he met another model, Gail Huff, an aspiring TV reporter who would become his wife. And they would raise two daughters, Ayla and Arianna. And despite how busy Brown’s life as a real estate lawyer, state rep, and then state senator became, he made it home for dinner, traveled to Ayla’s basketball games, and cuddled up with Arianna for their regular movie night. Brown had the discipline to be the father he’d never had.
His ideology is not nearly as regimented.
The best — and worst — that can be said of Brown is that he is a fiscally conservative, socially conscious moderate, with asterisks. He’s consistently voted for stem cell research, for business tax cuts, and — this is where his moderate leanings collapse — against gay marriage. In 2007, three full years after gay marriage became law in Massachusetts, Brown was still trying to outlaw it. He voted to put a measure on a ballot banning future same-sex marriages, according to state Senate journals. (The measure was overwhelmingly defeated.)
With the help of InstaTrac, a voting-record service on Beacon Hill, Boston has compiled Brown’s complete 11-year voting record as a state representative and state senator. All told, he voted with Republican leadership 89 percent of the time. But he is not a “lockstep Republican,” as the Democrats labeled him during the U.S. Senate race: He’s pro-choice, for instance, and has voted for numerous environmental measures. In fact, the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters gave Brown an 82 percent favorability rating in 2008 — higher than some Democrats. Brown now says his 2008 vote for a signature cap-and-trade system, which basically offers companies financial incentives for capping emissions and then trades the offsets on an open market, was a bad one.
Such contradictions are not new for Brown. He voted against increasing the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, and then against a moratorium on the building of new charter schools. His most famous flip-flop was, of course, healthcare: He would have voted for Massachusetts’ universal coverage in 2006 if he hadn’t been out for a medical procedure the day of the vote, according to Senate journals. (He opposes the nationwide plan today because he says it will hurt seniors and raise too many taxes.) Yet Brown’s most revealing change involved Metco, the state plan that buses poor urban students to rich suburban school districts. After initially voting against an increase in Metco funding while a state rep, Brown, as a state senator, not only voted for funding increases but also went on to cochair Metco’s legislative caucus.
His sudden advocacy came after a visit to Wayland High School in 2005, Metco officials believe. Dave Schmirer, a social studies teacher there, remembers Brown’s visit well. Schmirer had planned a series of debates for his and another civics class on the issue of gay marriage. He needed a speaker who opposed it and invited Brown. During the lecture, Brown drew the parallel that having him speak against gay marriage was like having a black student speak for Metco. “Don’t you agree?” he said, settling his gaze on one such student. Brown had no idea if that student was in Metco. (It turns out he was.) But the comment unsettled Schmirer. “It wasn’t racist,” he says. It just lacked a certain sensibility, a sensitivity, even.
In the next civics class, things got worse. Brown wondered aloud if Metco students had been brought to Wayland High as a potential boon to the athletics program. Now Schmirer wasn’t the only one who felt unsettled. Students, too, found the comments inappropriate, Schmirer says. They asked Schmirer to bring Brown back to explain himself. Brown returned about a week later.
He didn’t really know why he needed to return, despite Schmirer having spoken with the senator’s staff about this visit. So, even if Brown’s staff hadn’t relayed Schmirer’s message that the students wanted an explanation, Brown himself had failed to see the impact his comments had had on others. He’d walked out of Wayland High one week earlier without regret. “It was like [the incident] hadn’t registered,” Schmirer says.
This time, both classes met in a large conference room. As students started in with heated questions, Brown “basically apologized,” Schmirer says. Brown told the students he didn’t realize he had said something offensive. He was sorry for that. He seemed to mean it, and the kids seemed placated by the end of the class. When he left the school that day, Schmirer thought that was the last he’d see of him. “But then lo and behold….”
One year later, Brown voted for an increase in Metco funding. And the year after that, he decided to cochair its legislative caucus. State Representative Jay Kaufman of Lexington, the other Metco chair, says Brown was nothing if not an adamant advocate for the program. Kaufman never questioned Brown’s rationale; he just found it refreshing to see a Republican serving. Schmirer suspects “political expedience.” Then again, the Wayland High situation never made the papers, so there was no imperative for Brown to act. Through a spokesperson, Brown says he flip-flopped — voting against Metco in the House, and then for it in the Senate — because his Senate district was larger than the House one, and included many Metco schools. But political maneuvering wasn’t the only reason for his support. Brown also says he championed the program because he saw in today’s disadvantaged kids an ambition that mirrored his own. He went on to help push the state’s funding to levels never seen.
If the Wayland High incident were a standalone gaffe, Brown could be excused. But he has said a lot of uncouth stuff over the years. In 2007, he went to King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham to argue once more against gay marriage, and instead turned to comments from a Facebook page that King Philip students had created with the support of a history teacher who backs gay rights. The comments attacked Brown and his family, often vulgarly, and Brown found this to be a teaching moment. With anger in his voice he shamed the teenage authors by reading their comments aloud. The superintendent later said it was inappropriate language for a school setting. Brown agreed — which was why he had read the comments.
Even those who disagreed with the bully tactics could understand why Brown used them. His family had been attacked and he wanted to show that actions have consequences. Other moments of extemporaneous Scott Brown aren’t so easy to comprehend. There’s the plain silly: During his U.S. Senate victory speech he told a televised audience his daughters were “available.” There’s the weird: He came close to condoning the deadly actions of libertarian Joe Stack, the irate Texan who flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin, by saying, “I don’t know if it’s related, but I can just sense…people are frustrated.” There’s the incendiary: In 2001, he called it “not normal” for former state Senator Cheryl Jacques and her gay partner to have children. He then belittled the idea that Jacques could step away from public life for familial reasons, calling her new career her “alleged family responsibilities.” Brown later apologized for those remarks.
These were all stupid comments, and perhaps the reason why Brown is so carefully managed these days around members of the media who aren’t right-wing talk show hosts. The murmur around Washington, certainly in the press corps, is that the new guy himself isn’t all that bright. But saying dumb stuff is not the same as being dumb. You don’t climb out of an abusive, nonpedigreed youth to the heights of the United States Senate without having something in the way of intelligence.
The intelligence, however, doesn’t extend to policy Brown has sought to enact. This is borne out by his voting record. Of the 187 bills he filed during his 11 years in the Massachusetts House and Senate, only seven became law, according to InstaTrac and House and Senate journals. All seven dealt with the most mundane of issues: municipal aid, which is rarely, if ever, debated on the chamber floor and almost always passes unanimously. Brown last had a bill signed into law in 2002, which means he went his entire tenure in the state Senate (part of 2004 to early 2010) without authoring a single effective bill. (Six of his amendments to existing bills were adopted during that time, according to InstaTrac and state records.)
There are a few ways to interpret this. Because the GOP is so vastly outnumbered on Beacon Hill, “you can’t make much of a mark in the legislature,” says Republican Brian Lees, former minority leader in the state Senate. “You don’t see any major bill that has a Republican name on it.”
Democratic state Senator Mark Montigny, who sat next to Brown on the Senate floor, disagrees. Montigny, who likes Brown and is friendly with the man, says, “You can be a policy guru in the minority party. You can absolutely have an effect…but I didn’t see [Brown] being heavily involved in the policy stuff.” Adds a person close to the state’s Republican Party, “He wasn’t around enough to make a difference.”
Where he was, was out in the district. Brown’s constituency stretched across 11 towns within Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex counties. Working a crowd — that’s where Brown is most comfortable. “I remember the calendar he kept,” says Republican state Senator Bob Hedlund, meaning a schedule full of fundraisers, dinners, ribbon-cuttings. Hedlund couldn’t imagine the tedium of it all. Yet Greg Casey, Brown’s deputy chief of staff, says, “[Brown] loves retail politics. For most, it’s like pulling teeth. But he’s like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go shake some hands!’ He would just keep doing it relentlessly.”
This, if you think about it, is as smart as any bit of policy wonkery. Whatever effect Brown the legislator could have had would have paled next to Brown the gladhanding politician: It’s always better to get out there, over and over, so that the people remember your name. This is how he lasted as one of only five Republicans in the Massachusetts Senate, and it’s how he got elected in January. Lucky for him, the race was short enough that he never had time to pull another Metco, a King Philip, a Cheryl Jacques, a….
He’s got two years until his next election — and who knows how many more nights like last evening’s lonely banishment at his new job. That was brutal. The Republicans kept offering amendments to the reconciled healthcare bill, and the Democrats kept rejecting them. On and on it went, until 3 a.m.
And still it is not done: As the Senate convenes this morning at 9:45 the amendments start up once more. The battle is no longer fierce. The senators are too tired for that. No one is doing anything more industrious between votes than sitting in his or her seat and blinking — except for Brown. He’s over there alone in his corner, with a Senate procedural book as thick as War and Peace open on his desk, writing letters longhand to constituents.
He cannot abide idleness. That’s part of the reason he’s a triathlete, and, 30 years after his enlistment, a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. His former spokeswoman, Maria Coakley, used to call Brown on his cell phone to discuss upcoming events and he’d answer, panting into the receiver. He wanted to talk, but he wasn’t going to miss his morning run to do it.
Just before 2 p.m., the Republicans finish offering their amendments, and it’s time to vote on the healthcare bill. Vice President Joe Biden presides. The Democrats filter into the chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asks for a moment of silence for Ted Kennedy, whose life’s work was this bill and whose seat today, roughly opposite Brown’s own, is empty. The moment of silence lasts for 30 seconds.
At 2:01, Brown casts his “no” vote and, like most other Republicans, leaves the chamber. The bill passes, 56-43 — and with it, the hard right’s infatuation with Scott Brown. Tomorrow’s newspapers will repeat a theme: The Republicans — especially the newly elected Republican who promised the most — had stopped nothing.
Watching him duck out back doors, and write letters alone in his corner, and struggle to impress his fellow Republicans, it’s easy to assume that 41’s political capital has dropped to zero. But what happened late last night suggests otherwise.
At some point deep into the votes on the Republican amendments, Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota walked over and sat next to Brown. They talked for more than half an hour, Brown leaning into Franken, laughing at his jokes — and then getting the former SNL star to laugh at some of his own. Then Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, another Democrat, stopped by for a long chat on bike legislation. Then Brown himself walked across the aisle, and with a confidence that was lacking earlier in the night, began to work the room. He joked with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, lightly punched Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow on the shoulder. For a moment, he had the attention of a small crowd of Democrats.
The truth is the Democrats need him. Brown is a swing vote in a deeply divided Senate, which is another way to say: the most sought-after, the most powerful vote in the chamber. Powerful because an ill-defined ideology can be its own ideology, and because at any given moment only Scott Brown knows what Scott Brown’s up to. It’s worked for him so far.
With additional reporting by Joe Keohane.