Terrorism and national security are the hot luncheon topics of the day.
The "Lunch With A Leader Online Auction," which ends Oct. 21, features one-hour lunches with more than 50 Americans of myriad backgrounds: actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ted Danson to illusionists Siegfried and Roy.
Wouldn't you know, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (current bid of $2,000.01), former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ($1,000), and former U.S. NATO Commander Gen. Wesley Clark ($650) are among the most popular luncheon hosts in the online auction - www.lunchwithaleader.com - benefiting Communities in Schools.
In this era of espionage, it isn't uncommon on Capitol Hill, particularly in the months preceding an election, that the offices of senators and congressmen are swept for hidden listening devices.
Intelligence specialists will descend on a lawmaker's office and, in the space of a few hours, examine every nook and cranny, lamp and telephone, in the quest for concealed bugs.
One such bug sweeper now reveals to this column that several years ago he was conducting a search of the office of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and was surprised to discover something else of intrigue glued beneath the desk of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
"Two different pieces of paper going back many years, each protected in plastic, were glued right under the center part of the desk," says the bug sweeper, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They certified that the senator had personally purchased the desk and authorized him to take it with him upon retirement.
"I never saw anything like it," he says. "If nothing else, it speaks to how well organized the senator is. And now the day has come that he is retiring."
Helms' spokesman, James Broughton, confirms that the documents indeed exist. One is a letter from the Senate Rules Committee, certifying that the impressive "Partners Desk" is the property of the senator. There is even the canceled $350 check that Helms wrote to purchase the desk.
"Back then that was a good bit of money," Broughton notes. The senator was first elected in 1972. Today, Scholte Furniture advertises a similar mahogany Partners Desk for $13,800.
So what is to become of this historic piece of furniture now that Helms is retiring after 30 years in the Senate?
"It will probably go to the Jesse Helms Center," says Broughton, referring to the independent, nonpartisan organization established by private donations at Wingate University to promote understanding of the principles of democracy, the free-enterprise system and moral values.
All values Helms promoted in three decades behind the same desk.
What would the conservative Sen. Jesse Helms say about a fellow North Carolinian, House candidate Rachel Mills, appearing in a provocative pinup calendar available for sale?
Mills says she decided to create the North Carolina "Ladies of Liberty" calendar after she received an offer to pose nude in Playboy magazine, which she declined.
"I was raised as a missionary kid, so my parents would really not be happy," she says.
Instead, the 27-year-old political hopeful is one of six lady Libertarian candidates who appear in lingerie and other skimpy attire in this eye-opening calendar. She hopes to sell 2,000 copies of the calendar to raise $30,000 for her campaign.
Mills worked with Robert Mihaly, former artist-in-residence at Washington National Cathedral, to create the series of photographs that paid tribute to Alberto Vargas, the classic pinup artist of the 1940s and '50s.
"This is a fun-loving, colorful campaign," she says. "But I stand strong on issues. Runaway government is no laughing matter."
Helms would no doubt agree.
Another new form of political communication is proving to be a laughing matter that is having a serious impact.
Tom Gibson, former Reagan communications guru and one-time newspaper cartoonist, has gone online with animated pieces that deliver policy messages. Currently, he's got a dancing nymph promoting Verizon's concerns about the telecom depression.
"The animations break through the ordinary clutter of print ads, fact sheets and talking points with some humor and eye candy," says Gibson, who divides his time between creating animations and his senior director's post at the White House Writers Group.
"The visuals and message tend to stick and stay and the early returns are pretty extraordinary," he tells this column.
Alex Treadway, of National Journal.com, says such animations like the one now appearing on his site are "the newest, coolest mousetraps for getting a policy message out. The click-through rate on Tom's animations are eight times the rate of most of our banner ads. We're ecstatic about the response."
Verizon senior government relations executive Mike Troy says that "with issue ads becoming more and more contentious, we've found that communicating a serious message with a smile can be very effective. That's just what the nymph does for us."
And during these trying days, we can all use a bit more whimsy.
Usually U.S. election monitors are dispatched to Third World and developing democracies. On Nov. 5, the House Administration Committee will post observers in Florida, to be the "eyes and ears" of Congress as the confused state holds its first general election since implementing broad balloting reforms.
In Peter D. Hannaford's new book, "Ronald Reagan and his Ranch: The Western White House, 1981-89" (Images From the Past Inc.), the nation's 40th president explains to the nation the successful raid on the military headquarters of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
How closely, observes Washington public relations mogul Hugh Newton, Reagan's explanation echoes the sentiments today of President Bush toward Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Observed Reagan: "We tried quiet diplomacy, public condemnation, economic sanctions, and demonstrations of military force. None succeeded. Despite our repeated warnings, Qaddafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror. He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.
"I warned that there should be no place on earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills. I meant it. I said that we would act with others, if possible, and alone if necessary, to insure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere. Tonight we have."
"Reagan had it right then," Newton notes. "Bush it seems may have read Reagan's line."
Discussing the importance of a single vote, former Idaho Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage reminds us what a nail-biter it was in the 2000 presidential contest.
"The electorate was split 49-51 and the presidency was decided by 537 votes. At least one congressional district was decided by 33 votes," says Chenoweth-Hage, chairman of America 21, which is launching a project to turn out Christian voters for the Nov. 5 congressional elections. She says such votes will determine whether "godly leaders" control the agenda of Congress.
How influential is the Christian vote?
It could be far greater, admits organization president J. Thomas Smith. In the 2000 election, 50 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Christians failed to register to vote, he says. Of those who did register, half never went to the polls. As a result, an estimated 4 million Christians failed to vote in 2000.
GET TO THE BOTTOM
"He said he was honoring the requests of his adoring fans." -- Fox News Channel spokesman Robert Zimmerman, asked by the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star to explain why network correspondent Geraldo Rivera signed autographs on the rear ends of Hooters waitresses while covering the deadly sniper shootings around Washington.