Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS


I loved the movie "Up." I would have given it my Oscar party vote for Best Picture if I hadn't seen (and loved) "The Hurt Locker."

But the part of “Up” which makes me laugh out loud every time I see the clip again, was the part about the talking dog. In it, an enthusiastic cartoon puppy speaks. (For some reason, I find talking dogs pretty funny.) But in this movie, just when he’s about to make a point, a squirrel (or something) dashes by. The poor canine immediately loses his train of thought in all the excitement, exclaiming “Squirrel!” and dashing off to chase it.

It’s been hard for me to explain to friends and family who ordinarily credit me with a more sophisticated level of wit why I find this so deeply amusing. But without over-thinking things, I have decided a week like this in Washington answers that question.

Just as we reporters and our assignment editors are sinking deep into another consecutive month of policy heavy lifting – on subjects like health care reform, joblessness, financial regulation and incursions in Afghanistan – a squirrel races by.

The squirrel this week was a back bench lawmaker most of us had heard nothing of before he dashed into our view. Eric Massa just this minute arrived in Congress, elected from the 29th district in the state of New York in 2008 by beating a two-term Republican incumbent. He was one of a handful of Democrats who hit a political sweet spot – a Desert Storm veteran who also opposed the war in Iraq.

But this is not how he will be remembered. Accused of sexually harassing men on his staff, he immediately announced he would resign – first saying he had health problems; then saying he used “salty” language and was indeed overly familiar with staff; then accusing Democratic leaders of forcing him out because he was prepared to vote against the President’s prized health care reform plan.


Then this week, there were no fewer than five huge stories about a story I am sure is keeping Americans up at night –whither Rahm Emanuel? I have known my share of White House chiefs of staff, but I have never witnessed this level of fascination before, certainly not for James Baker or Andy Card, John Podesta or Mack McLarty. Is it because Emanuel has a foul mouth? (He really, really does.) Is it because way too many people think they know him way too well? (In Washington, this is most certainly true.) Is it because he returns reporters’ phone calls? (No comment.)

I’d guess it’s some combination of all of the above. Now, I’m not suggesting we in the news media should have ignored Massa or Emanuel. How could we? The Massa story got more incredible every day – especially when he sandbagged Glenn Beck by admitting the overly familiar behavior – tickling, he said -- and announcing to the conservative talk show host that he did oppose health care reform, but because it did not spend enough money.

And how can we ignore the machinations of someone as powerful as Emanuel, who remains the President’s right hand man and chief enforcer?

But, but…

We love the distractions. We love the bright and shiny things. It’s only human. (I am not so above the fray that I didn’t watch every single minute of the “20/20” interview with John Edwards’ ex-best friend Andrew Young, gasping throughout.)

It’s just, it’s just…

Let’s not lose sight of the stories we are trying to tell, people. That would make us the dog. Everybody needs health care coverage. Most people need a job. Most people would like to own a house. War and peace have consequences.

Is it possible to take note of the side show without becoming consumed by it? I think so…but wait a minute…I just got a breaking news alert. The Congressional Black Caucus is mad at the President.