The Freshman Congressman Gives Washington a Fat Lip
By Paul Judge
"Do you mind if I look around?" With his conservatively cut brown hair, his glen plaid suit and polka‑dot tie, his black shoes and his ready hand, Congressman John LeBoutillier could be a young Harvard administrator making an informal tour of the room on the fourth floor of Kirkland House. Today, however, he's just a returning graduate, visiting the Cambridge rooms that were his for two years. He breathes in. "It even smells the same."
Looking somewhat relieved, the barefoot couple invite their surprise guest in. The alumnus noses around delightedly for a minute or two, opening doors and looking into closets. One wall is dominated by stars and stripes, a regulation‑size American flag.
Returning to the front hail, he strikes up a conversation with the two Harvard seniors, both only a few years younger than LeBoutillier. The girl inhabits the suite, a triple that she shares with two classmates. LeBoutillier inquires and learns that she is thinking of business school alter graduation; the young man plans to join the Marines.
The talk drifts to politics, as it often will with LeBoutillier. "That's what I was into when I was here," he explains. From a small table beside him he picks up the telephone, as if to check the dial tone. "I raised more money from this room for the man who ran against McGovern in '74 than they raised in all of South Dakota." It's out before he can stop it. The couple in the living room exchange glances.
Not until LeBoutillier is halfway down the stairs does the would‑be Marine make the connection. He calls down the stairwell: "John LeBoutillier. Now I remember. Didn't you write some book called Harvard Hates America? You're in Congress now, right?" The congressman grins up sheepishly at the Harvard senior. "Yep. That's right." His voice rings in the stairwell. "I'm the noise‑maker."
At 28, John LeBoutillier (pronounce luhBOOT‑lee‑ay) is the youngest member of the 97th Congress, and, some would say, the freshest. Representing New York's 6th District, on Long Island, he is unabashedly conservative in his views, but decidedly not conservative in the way he expresses them. He has called Jimmy Carter "a complete birdbrain" and Alexander Haig "a second‑class politician." About Congress he wonders: "You have to ask yourself what goes on here. It's a joke." The House Foreign Affairs Committee is "a snake pit." Reagan's Cabinet is "boring." And Senator Charles Percy he characterized as "a living disaster with almost no redeeming features."
His biggest target to date has been Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who, in LeBoutillier's words, "personifies everything about politics that the public hates today." He stepped up the assault with a halfhearted campaign to unseat the Speaker, which he has dubbed Repeal O'Neill-‑"I designed the button myself." But the fireworks really began this July, when LeBoutillier opened a speech with the analogy, "Tip O'Neill and the federal government are the same: they're both big, fat and out of control."
In his political judgments, he is equally up front. A loyal Reaganite and a team player on most issues, he differs in priorities and passions, particularly on the Middle East: "Yasser Arafat is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler"; on Awacs: "Never-‑what happens if the Saudi government falls and is replaced by the Ayatullah's half brother?"; on crime: "I'm in favor of criminal control-‑you know, throw them in the slammer and leave them there"; on ERA: "To tear the country apart on a stupid amendment is just plain crazy." Reactions to Congress's new Bad Boy Puck have ranged from bemusement to official opprobrium. "I told him to tone 'em down. Don't be ad hominem," counseled congressman and mentor Jack Kemp. The Vice‑President's wife, Barbara Bush, was willing to forgive-‑on one condition. "She said she'd invite me to dinner if I stopped calling Percy a wimp," LeBoutillier says. "I don't know what a wimp is," replied the senator with a straight face. But Congressman Toby Moffett of Connecticut censured the freshman for his remark about O'Neill, calling it a "scurrilous attack" from the floor of the House. And the National Committee for an Effective Congress sent out a fund‑raiser packet featuring a photograph of LeBoutillier with a large X across his face.
LeBoutillier himself seems to care only that his name is spelled correctly. When Tip O'Neill countered the freshman congressman's "big, fat and out of control" remark by asking, "LeBoutillier‑-isn't he that young pup from New York who needs housebreaking?" LeBoutillier's staff spread newspapers on his office floor, and their boss enjoyed the joke more than anyone. Certainly he shows no sign of curbing his tongue. When two lobbyists representing the domestic sugar industry recently came to woo him on a busy morning, one mentioned a golf partner of LeBoutillier's father. "My father died playing golf," the congressman said as they settled onto the couch. "He bogeyed a par 5, picked up the ball, said 'Oh, s‑‑‑,'
and dropped dead. It was a short meeting.
Born into social position and wealth, John LeBoutillier had a mannered upbringing. His father, Thomas LeBoutillier, a scion of a prominent Long Island family, worked as a test pilot for Grumman, not far from the family residence in Westbury. He married into a family of equal prominence-‑the Whitneys. Although young John remembers little discussion of politics at the dinner table, a legacy of public service and public exposure loomed large: his great‑great‑grandfather was William C. Whitney, Secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland; his grandmother's cousin, John Hay Whitney, was ambassador to Great Britain under Eisenhower; and another of her cousins, Joan Whitney Payson, owned the Mets.
LeBoutillier picked up the nickname Boot at Brooks School in Massachusetts, where he was captain of the soccer team. Not until he advanced to Harvard did he encounter the liberal foe. Comparatively ascetic and politically right of center, LeBoutillier remembers sitting in a room as a freshman with other Harvard Young Republicans discussing whom to support for President, Nixon or McGovern. "They chose McGovern," he says, still disbelieving. "I should have known then what was in store."
His growing commitment to conservatism found an outlet in the campaign of ex‑POW Leo Thorsness against George McGovern. LeBoutillier raised the remarkable sum of $250,000 from his room in Cambridge. It was a beginning of sorts for the 20‑year‑old. "From '74, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to run ... and win."
If the Thorsness campaign was his political initiation, Harvard Hates America was his bid for the political arena. When it appeared in 1978, attacking the trend of liberal thought and lifestyles among Harvard students and faculty, Newsweek magazine predicted the conservatives had "a new enfant terrible." The book aroused the interest of such established conservatives as Justin Dart and William Simon, both of whom became eventual supporters of LeBoutillier's congressional campaign.
Among his peers, he engendered little sympathy. He berated the radical chic he found so prevalent at Harvard: "It was the social thing to do. Join the crowd; blow some dope and attack America." LeBoutillier's idea of a college study break was a trip to Bailey's ice‑cream parlor, where he and a friend would meet every day in the spring of their senior year to have a milkshake and commiserate. A faculty member mentions one other quirk, besides LeBoutillier's anomalous ideology. "He was a most eccentric dresser, showing up in remarkable outfits: a purple shirt, red pants and a green tie."
At his commencement, a time for identifying goals, LeBoutillier set three for himself: getting into Congress, reuniting the Beatles and running a major league baseball team. Five years later, one has been achieved, one has been rendered moot and one remains a dream.
"Harvard and Congress are just the same: the hardest part is getting in," says LeBoutillier, sitting at his desk in Washington, feet propped on its edge, stringing together paper clips. His head, upper torso, knees and half the bottoms of his feet are framed by a single high window with light‑blue drapes bearing the congressional seal in pale yellow. The Capitol dome hovers in the distance. On his desk, amid papers, files and two copies of his book, is a model of the Navy's airborne early‑warning aircraft‑-a miniature of the one he flew in recently at the Grumman testing airfield in his district. The requisite pictures (LeBoutillier with Reagan, at the podium, and in a Yankees uniform) and awards (the Young Republicans, the Nassau county GOP) are clustered on one wall. On the other, above a couch, is a Japanese assault rifle, captured by LeBoutillier's uncle in WWII, and a photograph of the U.S.S. Yorktown, his ship. A television is tuned to the action on the floor of the House.
"It's kind of like a dorm around here," he continues. "You're all on the same hall or right above each other. You can just go down and start talking to someone. I've been working on converting a Democratic congressman since April. I talk to him almost every day. Had him down to the White House yesterday and got him this close to switching." With a thumb and forefinger, he measures an inch and a half. "I'll be very proud if l can get it to happen."
He exhales lightly, like a swimmer clearing his nose. "What appeals to the press and the public is the thought of this young, angry guy in Washington, wailing away at the Establishment." He lets his feet fall to the floor and the chair springs him upright. "Well, I do wail away at the Establishment. But I'm not particularly angry about it.
"The public has come around to the fact that the liberals have failed miserably at running the country, and it's not because they didn't mean well; it's just that they were inept. Their policies have brought us to the brink of disaster. People are screaming about interest rates, inflation-‑things that were done before any of us young Republicans were born," he says as he links the paper clips together into a ring, a small circle of metal, and holds it up, as if looking for a weakness. "And we're going to spend the rest of our lives undoing it."
LeBoutillier won his seat last November in a surprise victory over Democratic incumbent Lester Wolff. Campaign costs ran high--$429,040‑mostly for expensive New York metropolitan area television time. In the last two weeks LeBoutillier pumped in $227,800 of his own money to pay for more air time for commercials that focused on Wolff’s reputation as a junketeer. Even so, LeBoutillier was slated to lose so convincingly that his own party was looking ahead to another try. "Two weeks before my election I couldn't have paid this many people to come hear me talk," LeBoutillier recently joked to a gathering of 70 State Department staff members during an address at the Secretary's Forum. "Even my mother said I'd never win."
The margin of victory was television, and ever since, LeBoutillier has relied on a winning camera presence to remain before the public eye. For all the noise, he has addressed his colleagues only once from the House floor, on the rather obscure issue of the Yamal pipeline from Siberia. But through television, he has been able to end‑run the substantive business of Congress and yet remain highly visible. "All the new guys in Congress understand the media and how it works," he explains. "Don't forget, we've been brought up on TV. Guys like O'Neill and all, it's not their fault‑they didn't have television."
On a brisk Vermont October morning, in crimson sweats, he spreads his feet in the frost‑rimed grass and begins to stretch for a run. In the afternoon he will interview the reclusive Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show, having engineered another television coup. "We'll spend the entire hour talking about reaching the Soviet people with the truth," LeBoutillier says, easing off a hamstring. "Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, satellites. Picture what an effect TV images of the Polish strikes would have!" He hints that the issue of reaching the Communist bloc through the airwaves might serve as his big debut on the floor of the House. "I'm waiting to pick my spots." His breath turns vaporous in the chill air. A breeze shakes down a shower of bright leaves. "I'm waiting to get something I feel very passionate about."