The dumbest question to emerge from Discovery Channel’s preview event at the National Press Club Thursday came from the Washington Business Journal.
In a talk moderated by Politico‘s now European editor-in-chief John Harris, a reporter asked two senators from opposing parties — Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — if they had to talk their staffs into letting them do a reality show about surviving on a remote island.
This is PR 101. This is bipartisanship in Washington. Which doesn’t really exist no matter how much anyone pretends it occasionally does. For instance, when two lawmakers from opposing parties can somehow convince reporters that they really are working hard to overcome their differences and find common ground. These story lines are not new. Think stupid sports bets between lawmakers. This one’s just a little more out there and adventurous, not to mention death defying.
In some ways, working together is a mirage that everyone wants to believe is possible. So what’s to convince? By the way, did they mention the show airs Oct. 29 at 10 p.m.?
“People in this town used to know each other really well,” said Heinrich. “That is really missing and [affects the functionality] of the place. There is enough blame to go around… I think people on both sides need to take some risk to make it functional.”
Heinrich and Flake seem like they’d really be good friends were it not for their opposing parties and are well matched for a program like this. Both are reasonably good looking men and in decent physical shape — Heinrich is more GQ while Flake is straight out of a Banana Boat suntan lotion commercial. Heinrich has the dry sense of humor while Flake is folksy, if not a tad corny.
The Hill‘s gossip columnist Judy Kurtz soon piped up with another PR question. She asked if the senators, especially Flake, were concerned about baring skin, noting that Flake earned questionable press when shirtless pictures surfaced of him a few years back.
“I can asure you we were very afraid but not naked,” joked Flake. “Yeah, there was that concern that people will poke fun of it for that reason or ridicule it for other reasons. We have that same issue on everything we do so we thought it would be worth it no matter what. You’re not going to see anything.”
Again, Flake propelled his joke into the air where it fell with a quiet thud: “We were afraid, but not naked. Put it that way,” he said, smiling.
Answering that groanworthy question about how staffs probably tried to deter them, Heinrich replied, “I thought it was worth it to take the risk.”
Yeah, forget about the shark infested Marshall Islands. Let’s worry about what the flack will think.
“Let’s face it, it’s unusual for senators who are still in the Senate and just starting to do something like this,” reasoned Flake. “Staff are typically risk averse. Part of their job is to protect their member from situations where they can be ridiculed. This was not a staff idea, this was our idea. We informed just a few people on our staffs. We needed to go to the Ethics Committee to make sure we were [within] the bounds [of the rules]. We were very careful in that regard.”
Heinrich chimed in: “We traevled on our dime. Discovery made a contribution to a small non-profit. It was not a for profit arrangement.”
PR worries aside, the senators were soon asked more logistical questions about how they survived, if they annoyed each other and if they were ever really afraid.
Heinrich stressed that coconut water doesn’t quench your thirst the way water does.
“The risk here is this was six days where we were not in control,” he explained. “We were not setting the rules and that’s a very different situation than you typically enter into in Washington, D.C. This was completely outside of that world. I think just getting people’s heads around that was like the unknown.”
WaPo columnist Dana Milbank attended the event and basically turned the whole thing into a joke. He cracked, “You guys are spear fishing, but not really bomb throwers,” he remarked dryly. “I treat this as the ice bucket challenge. So who do you nominate to do this next?”
Heinrich’s answer was swift: Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Flake opted for Sen. Maj. Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and said something that made the audience break into sort of nervous laughter: “If they could spend six days and nights on an island, we could move legislation to the floor. And if they didn’t survive, we could still move legislation to the floor.”
Heinrich, the wittier of the two senators, also made fun of his fellow senators. “We broke this to our colleagues and they still think it’s an Onion story,” he said.
In brief interviews with The Mirror, they said their newfound friendship was sincere. “I think it would be difficult to go through this experience” and not become close, said Flake, noting that their wives now know each other.
He added, “I think we’ve developed a genuine friendship. [Laughing] We were too tired to fight.”
Heinrich, meanwhile, has “a lot of respect” for Flake “as an individual and a family man.” But he suggested that senators need not visit dangerous islands to get the Senate functioning. “I think there is some potential for more of this,” he said, referring to friendships with pols in opposing parties.
Harris, the moderator, periodically intervened to keep the conversation flowing and succeeded in not being boring. “Were there times on the six days where you were genuinely miserable?” he asked.
“About evening of day two I would say,” said Heinrich. “After coconut number 67 we were questioning whether we could stay hydrated. A crab crawled up my leg in the middle of the night.”
Flake explained that the crabs on this island were so big “they could lob on your toe with no effort at all. Crabs could crack open coconuts.”
Flake’s misery, however, came when they were swimming between islands.
“You see nothing but blue everywhere,” he said. “We had picked a point because we knew there were currents. By the time we started to swim, they were going back toward the ocean, not the lagoon where you want them to be. As we got to the kind of main channel, we saw that point way off and we realized we had to swim very fast. [It was a] pretty stiff current and [there were] a lot of sharks. Later in the day the more aggressive they get. That spooks you.”
The shark and swimming metaphors moved seamlessly to Capitol Hill. Harris asked them about “swimming against the current” of their own parties.
The pair insisted they were already working on things together and trying to find common goals.
“Whether you want to see a Republican suffer or a Democrat suffer you’re going to be happy,” said Heinrich, reminding people to tune in.
In certain moments, however, he grew dead serious about the seriously dysfunctional political body in which he finds himself. “Whoever is in charge we owe it to [voters to] produce a more functional Senate in the next two years,” he said.
Flake proceeded to thank Discovery. “This was not an easy process,” he said. “We didn’t want a place that just looked remote. We wanted a place that was remote. It will be a good show.”