A lot of people put members of Congress on a pedestal, as if those 435 people are august statesmen in the mold of Roman senators or minor Greek gods.
So when Rep. Ed Towns came to our offices last month to seek the endorsement of our editorial board, the junior members of our staff were clearly charmed by the 26-year incumbent, acting as if the congressman was being carried in on a golden bier raised high by smiling lackeys.
And then Towns spoke — and the image of a lawmaker as a God-like figure immediately evaporated.
In all my years of covering politics, I have never encountered an incumbent as ill-informed as Towns. If you listen to Towns in our interview (posted at BrooklynPaper.com, you’ll hear a man who was as baffled by our questions on foreign policy as a first-year international relations student … at a junior college … in an economically disadvantaged country.
The tape is worth listening to. It’s pretty rare for the public to actually hear their elected representatives in unscripted moments. The reason? When these guys go off-script, they tend to talk nonsense.
Case in point: We asked Towns about the Russian invasion of Georgia last month. Here’s what he said:
“I think that in most cases, if you sit down and you negotiate, you usually can work things out. War, it [pause] does so much damage, not only to a country and a people in terms of resources, and all those kind of things, and so I just feel bad that the United States really is not in strong position, you know, to get in there and negotiate, because, you know, we’re so thin.”
That seemed vague, so we probed further. Towns did not:
“Well, you know, in terms of, you know, I think that you have to recognize that any time you have conflict, you have the United Nations, which has its role, to be able to negotiate, to be able to resolve. And the United States is number one in terms of being the big stick. I think that the United States should have been able to step in and to be able to provide the kind of leadership and be able to negotiate, but we’re not able to do it. So therefore, I just think that it’s a bad situation, a bad time, and I just want you to know, that I think that war is something that should be the last of the last of the last of the last of everything.”
Then we asked him about recent U.S. saber-rattling in Poland.
After a long pause, Towns said, “I’m not familiar with that one.”
So we reminded Towns that the story had been widely reported in many media, how the United States, in an apparent show of force against a newly emboldened Russia, had inked a deal with Poland to establish a missile interceptor site.
And Towns said again, “I’m not familiar with it, I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with that one.”
Now, I’m the kind of guy who prefers his foreign affairs as one-night stands with Belarusian waitresses in Brighton Beach, but even I found Towns’s answers in the foreign policy segment of our interview inexcusable.
In a separate interview with The Brooklyn Paper editorial board, Towns’s opponent Kevin Powell also seemed naive about the ways of the world. But Powell has the excuse of being a rookie. Towns is a sitting member of Congress — one who chairs a government appropriations subcommittee. Does he really have no knowledge about such important issues of national security?
Apparently, he does not. When we asked him about the War in Iraq, his position shifted sometimes within the same sentence.
“I think the threat from Iraq is a real one,” he started, gamely. “[But] we need to find a way to stop spending this money. I mean, this is really ridiculous. This is just crazy. And you know it.”
But when we asked what he’d do about it, he didn’t have a clue.
“So what you’re saying is, we shouldn’t do anything about Iraq?” asked Brooklyn Paper Publisher Ed Weintrob.
“Not at the present time,” Towns said. “My problem is that, all right, for the United States’ concern, I think every waking hour should be devoted to how to get out. … We need to involve the United Nations. I mean, the UN is there. You know, I think, what’s the purpose of it? Why is it there?”
Perhaps Ed Towns should be asking the same question about himself.