Watching Rep. Steve Israel work the crowd at an event for his new book Monday night, I was again struck by what's different about the Huntington Democrat: Most representatives like being in Congress. They go to lively parties, people kowtow to them, the money isn't bad, and a House seat provides more job security than any other gig I know. About 96 percent of House incumbents who ran last year won re-election.
But Israel doesn't like being in Congress, where he's served since 2001. Steve Israel LOVES being in Congress. He adores the shmoozing and the secret briefings and the proximity to brilliant, famous people. He delights in the House gym and the name-dropping and the public appearances in the district where he seems to know every Long Islander's name and his or her parents' health situation. And now he's loving the release of his first novel, "The Global War on Morris."
It's worth reading. Most good talkers can write if they try hard enough, and Israel chats as naturally as Astaire danced. "Morris" could have used one more vetting by a persnickety editor, but it's hard to hold that against a guy who wrote the book mostly on his cellphone at odd moments.
The premise is that in the post-9/11 America of 2004, a Long Island pharmaceutical salesman and ubershlub named Morris Feldstein is, thanks to an odd set of coincidences, tabbed by various Washington agencies as a kingpin hellbent on plunging the nation into terror and mayhem. The feds think Morris is aided by a sleeper cell of foreign-born Muslim accomplices. The reader knows the theoretical terrorists are slowly being seduced by the joys of Boca Raton, and don't know Morris from an order of dim sum.
"Morris" is a knowing and tone-perfect skewering of Washington, former Vice President Dick Cheney, his minions, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, and the "War on Terror." It is also a skewering of Long Island, from the honking of diner patrons harassing servers for more bread to the honking of traffic to the endless, seemingly identical string of shopping centers.
But the book is really about what the country too often and irrationally focuses on: fear.
Morris' fear manifests itself in his lifelong philosophy, "Why make waves?" His plan for staying out of trouble is to avoid causing any trouble, or even attracting notice. In stark counterpoint is Cheney, whose fear results in constant wave-making, proactively treating everything as a threat in the hopes of heading off trouble.
Morris cringes at the thought of his wife returning clothing to stores, because she's making a fuss. Cheney wants elderly Quaker pacifists surveilled because they oppose war.
"The truth is that we all have some Morris and some Cheney in us," Israel told me. But I wonder when Americans got so scared at the wrong things.
While driving, we carelessly text about the (nonexistent) threat of Ebola. We're terrified of dying in a statistically unlikely act of terrorism but willing to smoke, drink too much and carry an extra 75 pounds. We comb websites looking for sexual predators in the neighborhood but send prepubescent daughters to school dressed like hookers.
In Washington, bureaucrats fear they'll lose power, or worse, funding. On Long Island, residents fear they'll lose homogeneous neighborhoods, high property values and their chance to get fresh bread and extra butter from harried servers. Israel touches all that.
And maybe this is what makes Israel the perfect person to write about a bureaucracy and a nation gripped by lunacy and fear. He can be glib and opportunistic, and has foibles, but with his joyous demeanor, he never comes off as scared.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.