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The Liberal Lion in Winter : The Democrats' Legislative Genius, Los Angeles Congressman Henry A. Waxman is Back on Defense

December 04, 1994|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson, executive editor of L.A. Weekly, is writing a book on the crisis of American liberalism for Farrar, Straus & Giroux

It's an inauspicious start for what will soon become one of the worst days in Henry Waxman's life. At 8:15 on a drizzly Election Day morning, the Democratic congressman from West Los Angeles addresses 120 government students at Beverly Hills High and, not surprisingly, the rage against Congress has spilled into the Establishment confines of Beverly.

The first questioner, a kid in baggy pants and backward baseball cap who's two parts Beavis and Butt-head to one part Rush Limbaugh, wants to know about congressmen's pensions. A lawyerly Young Republican notes that illegal immigrants won't necessarily lose out on education should 187 pass because they can always pay tuition. A student who grew up in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania interrogates Waxman on smoking. Cigarettes, he insists, can't cause cancer because it's the government that says so, and governments never tell the truth. The bulk of the questions are innocuous, but all the pointed ones come out of right field. As the class winds down, the one hand still waving in the air belongs to Beavis-'n'-Rush, who wants to know whatever happened with the House banking scandal.

Through it all, the 55-year-old Waxman remains decorous and unembattled. His seat, certainly, is in no danger: He will win reelection with 68% of the vote, spending practically nothing on his own campaign. Besides, he knows how to work the students; he talks about his work on behalf of abortion rights and a cleaner environment. But he doesn't know how to wake the students. The morning never becomes electric.

Short, bald, pudgy, Waxman has all the charisma of a CPA. He persuades by argument, not by humor or force of personality. Where Ralph Nader unleashes a torrent of indignation, Barney Frank stings with wit and Tom Hayden still taps into a vein of adolescent anger, Waxman simply makes his case point by point by point. He is liberalism's man for all seasons. He is only its legislative genius.

It's a genius not widely recognized in Los Angeles, where Waxman is still chiefly known for his political alliance with his longtime friend, Congressman Howard Berman--though by now, the fabled Waxman-Berman organization, which shaped California politics for the last two decades, has virtually ceased to exist. Indeed, Waxman maintains a low public profile generally. In an age of mediagenic politicians, he is exactly the opposite. Low-key and sound-bite-adverse, he lacks some of the essential elements of a politician's personality. "Henry's a very reserved person," says Lenore Wax, a confidante of 35 years who is his campaign treasurer. "He still doesn't enjoy small talk."

"Henry never entertains colleagues," says his longtime aide Howard Elinson. "He does no sports. His staff would say, 'You should go golfing with (House Energy and Commerce Chairman) John Dingell.' Fat chance."

But there's more to politics than charisma. From the moment he was first elected to Congress in 1974, Waxman has been one of Capitol Hill's masters of inside ball, one of those dimly visible but legendary figures--the more legendary perhaps for being so dimly visible--who can block legislation despite widespread support for it, who can get bills passed in the darkness of a pre-dawn conference committee. There, though, the stereotype shatters. For when Waxman legislates in the dead of night, he's not inserting a dam or a highway or an aircraft carrier into an appropriations bill. He's more than likely expanding health programs to the poor.

Over the past 15 years, from his perch as chairman of what may be Congress's most powerful subcommittee--the health and environment subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee--Waxman has racked up a string of improbable legislative accomplishments. During the Reagan and Bush Administrations, he authored and engineered the passage of a strong Clean Air Act and--to the astonishment of Congress-watchers--the extension of Medicaid coverage to millions of the working poor. Behind closed doors, he has staved off attempts to cap Social Security and Medicare benefits. In open hearings, he has steadily laid the groundwork for banning smoking in public places.

"Waxman elevates to high art the blend of substantive policy knowledge, advocacy of policy improvements and excellence in strategic execution," says Robert Greenstein, director of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "There aren't half a dozen like Henry, and that's in both houses."

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