Writer Reflects On Losing An Unusual Run For Congress

As this lame duck Congress wraps up its final weeks of business, some of its members will also be clearing out their offices to make way for their successors. In this week's Washington Post Magazine segment, host Michel Martin speaks with writer Bill Thomas about his quest to become a member of Congress.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

This year's Grammy nominations are just out. We'll give you a heads up about the groups and artists who will be making some noise come February, when the ceremony is held. Now, some are names you probably know. And we think others are names you will want to know. So please stick around for that conversation a little later.

But first, we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine - something we try to do every week - to find interesting stories about the way we live now. And today, we hear about a man who thought he might, just might be part of that Republican wave we heard so much about in last month's midterm elections, where Republicans captured some 60 seats, and took back control of the House of Representatives - not to mention any number of governor's mansions and state legislatures.

So what if he'd never run for office before, lives in one of the bluest of the blue states, and didn't even have a particularly snappy slogan? A guy can dream, right? Or at least he can write about it - which is what Bill Thomas did in a piece called "My First Time." And he's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios to tell us more. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us again.

Mr. BILL THOMAS (Republican Candidate, Maryland's 8th District): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Bill, you were with us last to talk about the craziness that is an Ole Miss football game. And I guess - what did you figure, if racial reconciliation can come to Mississippi, you could run for Congress and win? Is that what's going on there?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I did think I could win. I mean, I don't think you get into something like this and not at least entertain the idea that the win is possible. So yeah, I thought I could win. And I didn't have a slogan, by the way, so - I don't think I did, at any rate.

MARTIN: Exactly. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Didn't have a slogan - didn't have enough time; I had about eight weeks. But it was really interesting, and it made me realize anybody can run for Congress. I mean, anyone can run for the Senate. More people should do it. It costs $100, $50 - very little, in some places - and it's a great experience. Suddenly, you're at candidate debates and forums.

MARTIN: But why did you think you could win, honestly? I'm not being mean, I'm just curious.

Mr. THOMAS: I just thought I had what it took. You know, I've covered politics for years. I've written about political campaigns, thought I knew - I thought I had it all figured out and, you know, got a rude awakening. But...

MARTIN: Well, what was the rudest of the rude awakenings? And what was fun about it, and what was not so fun?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, the fun part was getting to spout off in public. And most people just a get a chance to do this screaming at their television sets - or maybe in bars. But to be in front of a group of people - like-minded, in some cases - and to say what's on your mind, is a great opportunity. It's a very American opportunity. That's a lot of fun - meeting voters of all sorts, listening to people complain about whatever it is they want to complain about. I mean, that gets a little tiresome after awhile, but it's interesting.

See, but you could do that here. You could've saved the money and just come here.

Mr. THOMAS: We can do it right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: But I guess the - one of the surprises; and it probably wasn't really a big surprise because I anticipated this - the amount of work that goes into it. You don't get - you hardly get any sleep; you're working 24 hours a day. You need to get groups of people - you can't do this by yourself. I mean, you know, you can do a lot of things in life by yourself, but you can't run for office by yourself.

You did sink a good chunk of change into this - nowhere near the Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman amounts.

Mr. THOMAS: No.

MARTIN: The two candidates who were, you know, self-funded in California, who set records for the amount of spending, needless to say - you know, Michael Bloomberg in New York. But you did spend $20,000 on this.

Mr. THOMAS: Roughly, yeah.

MARTIN: Of your own money. And I'm wondering how your wife feels about this.

Mr. THOMAS: She liked it. I think she had a good time. You know, some people buy a sports car and drive around the neighborhood in a sports car, and rev it up - and things like that - as they go past their house. I just did this. I have very few eccentric hobbies - in fact, none. And this was an eccentricity in some ways, I suppose. But it was fun. It was a lot of fun. It was very educational. It was a great experience, to tell you the truth.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking with writer Bill Thomas, who recently put down his pen - or his computer - to run for Congress. He's written about this in this week's Washington Post Magazine. Well, let's not keep people in suspense anymore about what happened. You wrote in your piece: Politics is a rough business that only gets worse after the election, and you have to live with the results, including the unhappy fact that winners write history; losers write resumes. I'm sorry, I'm trying not to laugh, but it is really funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Well, that's the case, isn't it?

MARTIN: But the other thing I thought was funny is you said you tried to resist the temptation not to blame the voters. Talk to me about that.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think everybody probably - they didn't understand - or people blame the media, too. Voters didn't understand me, they didn't listen long enough. I mean, there are hundreds of excuses for losing. Sometimes, it's just almost an inevitability.

In a place like Maryland - although I think that the tsunami, as it's called, that sort of swept across the country, the conservative tsunami, which I was sort of surfing on in Maryland, probably is going to get to Maryland, eventually.

Maryland is the third most liberal state in the United States. After Hawaii and Massachusetts, you've got Maryland. There's a large - in Montgomery County, which is a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the 8th District is, you've got a lot of government workers. And they're essentially - most of them, probably Democrats. And they - when they vote for Democratic members of Congress, the Senate, they're voting for pay raises for themselves.

MARTIN: OK, but you came in last in the Republican primary. Let's not skip past that.

Mr. THOMAS: Right. I came in last in the - let's not skip past that. OK, well, I was hoping you would. I came in last in the Republican primary.

MARTIN: But - so your fellow travelers were not feeling you, and I'm just wondering why that was.

Mr. THOMAS: No, they weren't feeling me. They did not feel my message, I guess. Well, again, I mean, I like to think that I didn't have enough time. I only campaigned for about eight weeks. Others had been at it.

MARTIN: Well, give me your spin. You have - what's your spiel?

Mr. THOMAS: Here's my spin. Others had been at it much longer, and I'd been at it for about eight weeks.

MARTIN: No, I mean, why would somebody vote for you? Give me the Bill Thomas message.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, here it is; the Bill Thomas message would be essentially this: I spent a couple of decades, really, writing about Congress. I knew how it worked. I would hit the ground running, and there was very little difference between me and the other candidates in terms of political outlook. I mean, we're all conservative. And we all talked about smaller government, you know, lower taxes, lowering the debt, lowering the deficit, and all of that. There was very little difference in message.

And it was a matter, I suppose - look, primaries are a crapshoot, as anybody in politics will tell you. You know, it's who draws the shortest straw. A lot of times, it has to do with name recognition, getting your signs out there. There's a ground game you have to have in politics.

MARTIN: Well, see, some people would argue that the recognition comes with actually having done something, like been in city council - or even like a local neighborhood association guy, or something like that.

Mr. THOMAS: This is the take. But every one of these other candidates were first-timers. One had run before.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

Mr. THOMAS: One had run and lost in 2008.

MARTIN: Well, very quickly, can you imagine yourself running again? Did this whet your appetite for the process?

Mr. THOMAS: I can imagine just about anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You might run for neighborhood association president now.

Mr. THOMAS: Look, it's - that doesn't appeal to me. I mean, I wanted to take on Chris Van Hollen. This was my ambition. And that didn't happen.

MARTIN: Who's the incumbent congressman in your district, a Democrat.

Mr. THOMAS: The incumbent congressman from that area. He's the assistant speaker - or was the assistant speaker, still is, he will be for a little while longer.

MARTIN: Also, he was also involved in the Democratic campaign committee and raising money for other Democrats. So you wanted to take on the big, big guy.

Mr. THOMAS: And the common take on him - that he was spending too much time pursuing other ambitions, and he seemed vulnerable.

MARTIN: All right, well, keep us posted.

Mr. THOMAS: Will do.

MARTIN: Maybe a trip - NASA. Maybe that - suit up as an astronaut; maybe that's next. I don't know.

Mr. THOMAS: There you go. That's not a bad idea.

MARTIN: OK. Bill Thomas is a regular contributor to the Washington Post magazine. He's also the author of several books, including "Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill." He joined us in our studios here in Washington. And if you want to read the piece in its entirety - we hope you will - just go to our website. Go to npr.org, go to the Programs page, and click on TELL ME MORE.

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