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Extending my fifteen minutes of fame

Gary Caruso | Friday, August 25, 2006

With the advent of each new school year comes the worn-out, age-old question, “What did you do this summer?” As a columnist, that question dogs me each fall as I prepare for my initial writing. One autumn, I reviewed my four-month summer federal jury service in which we convicted a man of 73 counts that included murder and resulted in his sentencing to serve several life terms. For me, that summer experience was the pinnacle event of my life, ranking just above a summer during my student days at Notre Dame when I volunteered to work in a New York City congressional campaign. That is, until this summer.

This summer was born last April on the Monday after publishing my final Observer column. A whirlwind of media interest descended upon me after a feature article along with my etched likeness appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. The banner blared, “Softball on the Mall Was Bipartisan Fun Till Politics Intruded.”

The Journal’s exposure triggered my appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as well as additional coverage by ESPN Magazine, Washington Post Radio, Current TV, Fox News, ABC News, Roll Call Newspaper and other print, broadcast and Internet outlets. Yet, the popular notion that in life we all attain 15 minutes of fame is a prevarication. Sometimes notoriety – even as seemingly silly as mine – refuses to fade from our 24-hour news cycle if the story rings an element of truth to the average citizen.

At times, and particularly this time for my situation, notoriety endures if conditions evolve into another chapter of the anecdote. That transition of gears is almost like an involuntary shifting from undergraduate senior to master’s candidate without ever planning on postgraduate work. It is another of life’s twists that each of us must learn to face. For me, the story became an exposé on how the elite House Republican congressional staff, beginning with the speaker and majority leader’s offices, who through their positions controlled the business and political aspects of the federal government needed to also control “play time” or would take the ball and go home.

It began in late 2005 when e-mail exchanges over our handicapping of only the first round of our year-end softball tournament seeding process exposed the true character of many of these elite Republican staff. More casual teams were paired against other casual teams in the first round before facing the serious teams. One unhappy serious player called it “Softball Welfare – aiding the weak by punishing the strong.” Another barked, “The commissioner has a long-standing policy of punishing success and rewarding failure. He’s a Democrat. Waddya expect?”

“It’s competition, you know. We are not here to encourage people, we are here to pick the best team,” wrote another. One note said that top teams “are being screwed by your Softball Welfare Bracketology.”

“It’s pretty well known that most of the competitive teams and most of the fun teams are Republican,” says the captain of another Republican team. “Maybe we are just more talented people.”

That sentiment explained why a staff member from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R, Ill.) spearheaded a secession last March of mostly Republican sponsored softball teams from the 37-year-old Congressional Softball League of which I am the commissioner. “What’s the regular season for?” asks the now commissioner of the new league. “It’s very irritating to teams like ours who are 12-0.”

Ironically, once the new league formed, it handicapped its entire season with power rankings. But rather than simply playing games and promoting the new league, the upstart leaders called our casual league “communist” in ESPN The Magazine and walked out on the taping of The Daily Show after sending text messages that coverage would be negative for the GOP. They chose to selectively speak with Fox News, but refused other inquiries.

The lesson learned is that those whose profession depends upon competition need to learn how to relax in a casual league that does not operate on any uniform set of rules. For those who want more serious play, create and promote a competitive league rather than demonize those who make the informal games fun for every team, including such casual teams as those who do not allow anyone to strike out.

Life is an interesting venture, and ironic at every turn. For elected members of congress who covet their likenesses above the fold on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, but for whom it has eluded them, my image stands alone on an April day. That may be a reason why the clock has ticked longer than 15 minutes for me. It may also be a reason for voters this fall to abandon Republicans not so much over policy as for the character flaws exposed by the “softball wars.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.