WASHINGTON — On any given day in the elegant corridors of the United States Capitol, some of the most powerful people in the world continue a tradition as old as the marble floors: Senators stop and take questions from the news media.
There’s Senator John McCain, patiently dishing out answers until, as he often asks, “Everyone have what you need?” There’s Senator Orrin Hatch, telling a reporter he has only a minute, but then talking at least twice that long. See Senator Barbara Mikulski, answering questions anywhere but on an escalator; “I’m fall-phobic,” she explained.
It is one of the quainter rituals in an era when the people in power are increasingly removed from the people they most affect, often talking through staff members in written statements or during heavily choreographed events. Most senators typically stop on their way to and from floor votes and committee hearings, and partake in the unthinkable: They answer the questions they are asked.
“Representative government is a two-way street,” explained Senator Chuck Grassley, lingering to answer questions from a Globe reporter.
And look, there’s freshman Senator Elizabeth Warren. A question for you, Senator? Senator! Senator?
And just like that, she is gone.
She’ll either huddle close to a Senate colleague, breezing past several reporters as if they don’t exist, or use a variety of other methods to avoid hallway questions. There’s the tricky cellphone to her ear maneuver, the more athletic dash for the elevator, the outright sprint to catch a departing tram.
Warren’s office has said the senator has a general policy of not responding to questions in the halls of the Senate, a decision that has put her at odds with the vast majority of her more senior colleagues, and one that has come to oddly color a celebrity newcomer who was once the Oklahoma state debating champion, a Harvard professor who has challenged the nation’s most prominent bankers, and traded quips and jabs on the late-night television circuit.
It may not be earth-shattering, or even important, but it is unusual.
Warren’s one-term predecessor as a senator from Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown, would frequently stop in the hallways for interviews when he first arrived in Washington, although he became far more taciturn over time. During his stint in the Senate, John Kerry also would often engage with reporters.
“Every senator will make his or her own decision on how to handle this,” Warren said Thursday in the hallway, during a rare exception to her rule, after declining prior attempts to discuss the issue. “But I want to be able to talk about the issues in depth, and I don’t think that works very well in the hallway.”
Warren is known for smart performances in one-on-one news media interviews, often getting the better of financial reporters trying to undermine her proposals. But she is less comfortable when fielding multiple questions during general press conferences.
The scene in the halls of Congress makes a press conference look serene.
It can resemble the floor action of a frenzied commodities market, as knots of reporters jockey for position around a single senator, asking rapid-fire questions in random order.
“What do you think about the Syrian civil war?”
“Have you taken a position on the House border security bill?”
The fate of the free world is not always at stake.
“What are your plans for the summer vacation?” one reporter asked every senator he could find on a recent day.
Competition for scraps of information and incremental news developments, the fodder of blogs and tweets, has only intensified with the proliferation of up-to-the-minute political and single-subject websites. The intense scrutiny correspondingly raises the stakes for any gaffes or misstatements.
Nonetheless, most senators say they take it in stride.
“And when I couldn’t avoid you, I could outrun you,” boasted Grassley, who is 79 years old.
Hatch said he would talk to anyone with a question, unless they’re dishonest. Then he corrected himself. “I’ll even talk to them,” he said.
“On occasion I get quoted out of context,” McCain said. “But that’s life in the big city.”
Senator Kelly Ayotte is a proven multitasker. On a recent morning, the New Hampshire Republican said she could talk but the reporter would have to sit with her on the Senate subway while she escorted retired female generals around the Capitol.
“If you don’t like accessibility,” she said, “you shouldn’t run for office.”
Warren usually fields questions from her home state reporters when traveling in Massachusetts, and she has occasionally made exceptions for Massachusetts-based reporters in the hall. But generally she instructs reporters to call her office to set up an appointment.
Since she entered the Senate as a national figure, she has tried to avoid the appearance of upstaging more senior members of the clubby, tradition-bound environment with many hierarchical rules — both written and unwritten. She has sought, in Senate parlance, to be a workhorse, not a showhorse. She appears more comfortable choreographing her message through floor speeches, press releases, and direct e-mails to her supporters.
Warren’s policy of holding her tongue began on her first trip to Washington as senator-elect when, while walking with a colleague, she spotted a group of reporters and was overheard whispering, “Pretend you’re talking to me.”
Several of her colleagues are known to avoid reporters, including Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who has avoided corridor interviews since he was identified as a client of a prostitution service in 2007, and Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat known best as a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member.
Barack Obama, when he arrived at the Senate as a celebrity lawmaker from Illinois, was often far more accessible making the long walk between the Hart Senate Office Building to the Capitol than at any other venue. Even Hillary Clinton, who had Secret Service protection as the spouse of a former president, was known to stop for questions at least some of the time.
Fledgling Senator Edward J. Markey frequently assented to hallway interviews as a member of the House of Representatives, and appears to be sticking with that policy in his new role. On the day Markey was sworn in last month, his wife and press secretary tried to hustle him away from reporters.
“No,” he interrupted them. “I can handle this.”Noah Bierman can be reached email@example.com.
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