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Over--and Done With--the Hill : With Stinging One-Liners and Bipartisan Barbs, Congressman Fred Grandy Is Riling Up the Grand Old Party by Refusing to Go Quietly Into the Night

November 21, 1994|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Fred Grandy was not running for reelection and it showed.

Looking more Beverly Hills than Capitol Hill, the Iowa Congressman and former television actor appeared for an interview in a blazer whose color he described as "bitchin' burgundy."

Grandy suggested the interview be conducted on a park bench to take advantage of an unseasonably warm day just before the Nov. 8 elections. Then he proceeded to do what he's been doing lately, to the chagrin of his Republican party leadership.

The party, he complained, "is so damn humorless. We don't need William Kristol (the political strategist). We need Billy Crystal."

Even as polls began predicting a Republican landslide, Grandy refused to get on-board.

At one point, he compared the Republicans' "Contract With America" to snake oil and called House GOP leaders "mean-spirited, angry, petulant schoolboys."

Pointing to a picture of Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, the soon-to-be House Speaker, he asked a reporter for the Des Moines Register, "Would you want your daughter to marry this guy?" It was a comment that received wide attention on the Hill.

One-liners have come easily to Grandy, 46, since long before he came to Washington in 1986 and discovered it was no Love Boat.

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, to wealthy parents who died one year apart and left him an orphan at 13, he has traveled to Harvard, Hollywood and the Hill in an odyssey that has made him difficult to characterize.

His varied experiences have endowed him with a vocabulary that includes such words as mediageneity and fakakta (a Yiddish vulgarism), both of which he inserted casually into the interview.

"That's the problem with Iowa: Not enough people speak Yiddish," cracked Grandy, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Then he launched into an impersonation of Jewish comedian Jackie Mason campaigning in a grain elevator.

Oy hay.

Grandy started acting at Harvard, where he appeared with Jane Curtin and others in a long-running satirical review, "The Proposition."

He learned his Yiddishisms in New York, where he went through the struggling-actor stage and appeared off-Broadway.

In Hollywood, he played Maude's daughter's boyfriend and then Gopher, the nebbishy cruise ship purser, on the long-running series "The Love Boat."

An accident in Turkey in 1982--when someone lighted a cigarette in a cab and a hydrogen balloon blew up in his face, causing him to suffer some burns--helped Grandy decide to leave show business.

He said he also wanted to accomplish something for the people of Iowa, where his family has roots that go back more than a century, and in a sense prove himself to his parents even though they were no longer living.

Sent to Washington after a hard-fought campaign, Grandy quickly lived down the Gopher image, earning a reputation for thoughtful, serious work and bipartisanship.

He took on all the "ugly baby" issues, a House staffer said, such as crop insurance, commodity futures trading and the House banking scandal.

Grandy also tackled health care in this year's thankless debate.

"He's a very thoughtful guy who is policy-oriented and not prone to knee-jerk reactions," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

"He's one of the most intelligent members to come to the House in many, many years," agreed Jim Leach, a fellow moderate Iowa Republican who gained attention for promoting the House investigation of the Whitewater scandal. "When health care came up, there were no real experts on it in the House. Through diligence and application, he became one."

With Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and others, Grandy sponsored a bipartisan compromise bill, but it never came to a vote.

"The leadership of the Congress couldn't stand it that someone possibly had a better idea," Leach said.

Grandy criticized the Democrats for squelching debate, telling a Los Angeles Times congressional reporter this summer: "The Democrats' definition of bipartisanship is 'Vote for our bill and we'll give you a cookie.' "

But in recent months, he has lobbed more stink bombs at the other side of the aisle, his tongue loosened by defeat in a primary against Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

Grandy defied his state party leadership in challenging Branstad, a three-term incumbent. He attracted significant independent and crossover Democratic support, but lost by 11,000 votes.

Defeat was humbling for a man with an admittedly large ego, but it was also liberating.

After eight years at a place he compares to a never-ending graduate school, he began broadcasting the criticisms he had been sharing quietly with a selected few.

"In the twilight of my political career, why not at least say that none of the emperors has any clothes?" Grandy said. "The problem is the hypocrisy. We spend half our time criticizing the Democrats and the other half imitating every move they make."

The crack about Gingrich, he said, was made after the Republican leader bragged that if his party took control of the House, it would inundate the White House with investigations.

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