CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Marvin Kalb, a former reporter for CBS and NBC News, looks more than a little flustered as he adjusts his lapel microphone. “I did this for three decades,” he says as he fumbles with the familiar device. “For some reason I’m nervous tonight.”
Kalb’s disconcerted air may have something to do with the topic of the interview he will conduct tonight as senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, Public Policy and Regional American Cuisine, namely: “Will Senator Christopher Dodd be best remembered for his role in the current financial meltdown, or for waitress sandwiches?”
“These are uncharted waters we’re sailing in,” Kalb says to a reporter who is interviewing the former reporter before an audience of reporters. “Can a press corps trained to misunderstand complicated financial issues shift gears and take on tough questions of light lunch fare?”
Kalb greets Dodd as the silver-haired former senator from Connecticut walks on the set, and, after a final adjustment to the men’s make-up is made, the interview begins:
KALB: Good evening, and welcome to Lunch and Politics, the public affairs program at the intersection of government and sandwiches. With us tonight is Christopher Dodd, who served the State of Connecticut in the U.S. Senate for three decades. Welcome.
DODD: It’s a pleasure to be here.
KALB: Senator, you were a focal point of popular outrage over the financial crisis because of your position as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
DODD: It came with the territory, Marv. As Harry Truman used to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
KALB: (Light, bogus laughter) Speaking of kitchens, I thought we would focus tonight not on the extraordinary amount of campaign contributions you accepted from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac . . .
DODD: I appreciate that . . .
KALB: . . . nor on the equally eye-popping sums you took in from nationalized insurance giant AIG . . .
DODD: Dodged a bullet there!
KALB: . . . or the sweetheart mortgage you got from subprime lender Countrywide . . .
DODD: A man’s home is his castle!
KALB: (More bogus laughter) . . . but rather on what many call the most significant accomplishment of your time in Washington–The Waitress Sandwich.
DODD: Thanks, Marv, but I can only take partial credit. It was me and my good friend, the late Senator Ted Kennedy who jointly developed The Waitress Sandwich.
KALB: I think it is fair to say that “The Waitress” has come to be viewed as an American classic, right up there with the BLT, the grilled cheese and the Ruben sandwich. Can you tell us how it came into being?
DODD: Sure thing. Ted and I were out with a couple of dates . . .
KALB: You were both single at the time?
DODD: Absolutely. Anyway, we were at La Brasserie, a very nice little bistro near Capitol Hill, and had been enjoying some moderate social drinking.
KALB: One of you was the designated driver, though–correct?
DODD: You betcha. I was the designated driver for Ted, and he was driving for me. Anyway, at one point our “dates” left the room, and Ted–well you know what a great sense of humor he has.
KALB: Didn’t you once say “If you want to find Ted Kennedy–listen for the laughter”?
DODD: If I had a nickel for every time I said that, I wouldn’t have taken campaign contributions from whining financial institutions all over the country! Anyway we were in a private room that the Washington press liked to call “The Teddy Kennedy Fun Room” and Ted decided to . . . well, have a little fun.
KALB: (Thoughtful tone) Um-hmm . . .
DODD: . . . so he picks up this waitress who’s walking by, and throws her on my lap!
KALB: You have to admire a man like that, who’s always trying to bring a smile to other people’s lips, despite all the pain he’s gone through personally.
DODD: Absolutely. Well, after he throws her in my lap–he jumps on top of her, and yells “Waitress Sandwich!” What a nut!
KALB: What happened then?
DODD: You know–that’s the curious part. The waitress didn’t seem to think it was funny.
KALB: Hmm. Why do you think that was?
DODD: I don’t know. Some people have no sense of humor.
KALB: Present company excepted?
DODD: Ha–good one!
KALB: How was this incident . . .
DODD: There was more than one . . .
DODD: Sure–it became a regular routine. We did it at The Monocle too.
KALB: Interesting. So how was it reported in the press?
DODD: Well, we got a little play in The Hartford Courant, and the right-wing Washington Times, but for the most part, the press ignored us.
KALB: As Thomas Jefferson once said, “A nation that expects to be free and yet turns the page on a waitress sandwich story to get to ‘Marmaduke,’ searches in vain for what has never been, and will never be.”
DODD: Wasn’t Jefferson great? Anyway, The Washington Post didn’t get around to writing about it until La Brasserie closed, a long time afterwards!
KALB: Really inexcusable . . .
DODD: I’ll say–America needs an informed citizenry.
KALB: In spades, buster.
DODD: And when they did write about it, it was almost in an off-hand way.
KALB: They buried the lede?
DODD: Yeah, it was kind of annoying. They just quoted Lynne Campet, the former co-owner of the place, saying “Who could forget Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd making unique contributions to our sandwich menu?”
KALB: (disconcerted silence) Well, that’s why we set up the Shorenstein Center. To keep the American press on its toes.
DODD: . . . and let me tell you, Washington appreciates it.
KALB: One final question. Your name is enshrined in our nation’s laws since the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed. Do you think it will help prevent another financial crisis?
DODD: Well, you know what Roscoe Conkling said.
DODD: “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he ignored the enormous possibilities of the word ‘reform.’”