Dinner for two 


Congressman Bill McCollum owes me a dinner. In fact, I've been waiting for him to set the date for about two years now. Ever since he trounced me by a 2-to-1 margin (for the second straight time) in the race for Florida's 8th Congressional District seat.

OK, I admit it: At first, I didn't want to go out with Bill -- but not because I found him less than personable on the campaign trail. Indeed, he always seemed a likable enough fellow who treated me with cordial respect, if not bemused condescension. And as long as the conversation stayed focused on our kids, or great vacations we'd taken, the short time-outs we shared -- amid the generally frenetic pace of hand-shaking, clam-baking and vote-getting -- remain as warm memories.

It's just ... I didn't think that, deep down, Bill and I truly had that much in common. I mean, what would we talk about? Politically speaking, we were as far apart, ideologically, as two opponents can be. And socially ... well, let's just say we travel in different circles. "But free food is free food," I thought to myself. "Ah, what the heck? Why not? He did mention taking the wives, didn't he?"

The problem is, we still haven't broken bread together. The excuse Bill keeps giving me is that he's always too darned busy. Two years ago it was, "Gosh, Al, this darned impeachment thing up in Washington is just taking up soooo much of my time ... but let's do dinner, soon!" "Bill!" I said, "Drop the impeachment thing. Nobody's gonna throw Clinton out of office! Why are you wasting all this time and money? Get a life, man! You're not doing yourself any favors here." (I was trying to be helpful. He was on a mission.)

At any rate, several weeks ago, after not speaking to or seeing Bill since '98, I ran into him after a Florida Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate between him and his opponents for the U.S. Senate, Democrat Bill Nelson (the current Florida insurance commissioner and McCollum's former congressional colleague) and Willie Logan (the former Democratic Florida state representative, currently running as an Independent).

He greeted me warmly, as usual, calling me his "old warrior pal." (Bill is always gracious, if somewhat obtuse -- and I swear it wasn't me who brought up the subject of the phantom grub.) "Al," he proffered quickly, "we really do have to go out for that dinner ... I just have to get through this darned Senate race!" Well, nobody can fault Bill's sincere desire to put things right. But before I could toss off a coy, "Yeah, yeah, congressman, you're just toying with me, again," he was engulfed by the press. We haven't talked since.

Ah, that darned Senate race. It doesn't look too good for you, Bill. The polls invariably put you eight to 10 points behind Nelson, who seems to be the non-threatening, middle-of-the-road candidate that you are trying -- unsuccessfully -- to be. Perhaps when you lurched to the right some years back in an attempt to run with the Gingrich pack, you moved yourself too far out of the mainstream. Or maybe it was that "Golden Leash Award," given to you in mock admiration of your egregious ties to special interests who have been bankrolling your re-elections and to whom you have paid such tribute throughout your congressional career.

Or maybe, Bill, people just don't believe you really mean what you say. For instance, you assert that you care about women and seniors, and are courting their votes. Yet the record shows that, over the years, you have consistently voted against their interests. The same goes for consumers, environmentalists, working people, etc., etc., etc. And let's face it, Bill. Anyone who actually said, "Those of us who believe in term limits ... need to stay longer," has a bit of a credibility problem. Capice? And even though you think your role as one of Clinton's main impeachment foes wouldn't be an issue in this year's race ... well, I tried to warn you.

And yet, this time, I know Bill and I are going to make that dinner date happen. Because for the first time in his political career, Bill McCollum is going to lose an election. And I know, from personal experience, that he's going to need someone to talk to. Someone who's been there. And around that table (in what I hope will be a reasonably expensive restaurant), he and I are going to discover that we now have a lot more in common than we ever had in the past. And though it may be hard to swallow, the truth is, Bill, that I -- like the majority of Florida's voters -- would rather be served with you than by you.

So, bon appetit, "old warrior pal!" I'm glad we finally made it. Oh, by the way -- jacket and tie, or casual?


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