Monday, April 27, 2009


There isn't much I don't resent about Budweiser, like being from Missouri and pretending to be able to make a goddamn beer. But one of their recent advertising campaigns, the one flaunting their swill's so-called "drinkability," has really got my goat.

It's not that I object to their minor manipulation of the English language. Stephen Colbert tweaks words all the time, and I admire the hell out of him for it.

Foremost, I'm cheesed off that they co-opted a term that was already sort of part of the vernacular and turned it into a trademark. I'm even more cheesed off that they think they can claim a monopoly on being drinkable when their product makes me gag like gasoline mixed with ipecac. You know what it takes to be drinkable? Two atoms of hydrogen, one atom of oxygen and a steady temperature between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius.

So I've been bound and determined for some time to re-claim the term from Budweiser's corporate sluts, and it just struck me the other week how to do it.

As I was wrapping up a particularly enjoyable phone interview at work the other week, I nodded to myself and chuckled, "Man, I wouldn't mind sitting down for a beer with that guy." This got me to thinking about the number of elected, state or municipal officials who, while they may be very competent and even good at their jobs, are not particularly engaging, at least at first blush.

But there are a select few who leave me in a better mood after speaking with them. For whatever reason, they're just all-around, fascinating and seemingly good folks, and I really would like to sit down and have a beer with them.

To reclaim the word from the corporate sluts, they have good drinkability.

Now, I know it's an unfortunate and somewhat established fact that when Americans were polled in the months leading up to the 2004 election, they overwhelmingly said they would be more interested in sitting down to have a beer with George W. Bush than John Kerry. We all know how that turned out, and I'm not saying drinkability in an official is the end-all be-all as a measuring stick for the kind of public steward a person is.

But the notion did get me thinking, and I've decided to start a list of public officials I'd really like to sit down for a brew with. I'll add to it from time to time, and hopefully I'll get to cross a few off as well. But without more ado, here are the first five.

1. State Representative Jeff Smith. I'll admit, I'm starting the beer list with a partial. While I haven't sat down specifically to have a beer with this Eau Claire Democrat, I did bump into him at my Wednesday night hangout on the outer capitol loop a couple months ago, and we had a brief discussion at the bar.

Smith, a handful of other legislators and it seemed their entire office staffs must have spent the evening working late on a big project, because they were out en masse that night. My buddies and I watched, bemused, for a while, then I went up to the bar to introduce myself to Smith and a certain young-legislator-with-a-lot-of-power-who-shall-go-unnamed.

When I identified myself as a reporter, Smith's colleague suddenly became much less interested in our end of the bar and, engrossed in his Blackberry, wandered into a solitary corner to bask in its cold glow. I watched him go, then turned back to Smith and grinned.

"He doesn't care much for the press, does he? Was it something I said?"

Smith looked at his beer and smirked. "He's kind of the jumpy type."

"And you?"

"Me? I'm just a guy from Eau Claire who works well with other people and enjoys a cold beer," he said. I told him I respect the hell out of that. We chatted for a while about his work on the state's new Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform before I closed my tab and took off. I'd still jump at the chance to finish my conversation with this laid back legislator who clearly understands that reporters are people too.

2. State Treasurer Dawn Marie Sass. Yeah, I know, the freakin' state treasurer. Sounds boring, right? What the hell does she even do?

Well, for starters, she tells a helluva story. I've never met her in person, but there have been times when she's had me nearly in tears of laughter while on the phone. Being able to tell a good old-fashioned ripping yarn is rapidly dwindling as a skillset in today's society, but Sass was either schooled in the trade, or else she was born a prodigy.

And I'm talking about on-topic stories she was telling me, nothing off the record or meant simply to entertain. I am absolutely convinced this woman is just a font of entertainment in a social situation. She's gregarious, engaging and impeccable in her timing. A dirty joke from Dawn Marie Sass could probably reduce a barfight to a fit of jocularity in mere seconds.

3. UW-Madison School of Journalism Director Jim Baughman. And it's basically my fault that I haven't been able to sit down with this icon yet, because I was too dumb when I was a student in one of his lectures to go up and introduce myself. Unfortunately, I took "A History of Mass Communication" before I had fully grasped the concept that professors can be fascinating human beings and can even be approached outside of class.

Instead, I satisfied myself by faithfully attending his lectures, which I once described to a friend as the most enlightening standup routines I'd ever sat through. His impression of George W. Bush never failed to bring down the house, and stories about his grandmother became the stuff of legends. Looking back at my notes, unfortunately, it seems I was too busy trying to take down the sheer volume of knowledge he was imparting to scribble many of his quotations in the margins, other than a now-inexplicable, "Our journalism commandos will burst into History and say, 'Major in Journalism or DIE!' -JB-"

It's rumored that Baughman is a regular at a select number of local watering holes. Try as I might, I'm fighting fate, and I've never seen him at a brewpub.

4. Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz. I'm fond of saying there's no disagreement that can't settled over a beer or two. Eileen Bruskewitz and I would need a keg to get through the list of points we would likely spar over.

Waunakee's representative on the County Board was a relentless promoter of Nancy Mistele's sometimes tasteless election bid for the county executive's seat. She fights many moves by the board to preserve and conserve Dane County's natural areas, arguing it's not the government's place to act as a landowner, but also saying some flagrantly dismissive things about environmental concerns that really get my green hackles up.

Bruskewitz is even a staunch opponent of creating a Regional Transit Authority to fund and build a commuter rail line across the county. On election night at Nancy Mistele's campaign headquarters, our friendly conversation turned to this topic, and we did have a bit of a verbal tussle on the subject.

I heartily enjoyed it. There's something to be said for a good argument against a well-researched opponent. Bruskewitz may be alarmingly right-wing compared to the crowd I normally move with, but she's incisive, quick-witted and doesn't take the disagreement personally.

We agreed on election night that a more proper venue and a little more time to kill would be appropriate for a "final showdown" over the train issue, and I do hope we get a chance to get the drinks we sort of promised each other.

5. Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls. And to be fair, there are a number of law enforcement officials I wouldn't mind having a beer with -- Sheriff Dennis Richards and Chief Deputy Mike Babcock in Columbia County, Sheriff Randy Roderick in Green County, Sheriff Dave Mahoney in Dane County, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and spokesman Joel Despain, just to name a few.

But I gained a lot of respect for Sheriff Nehls during a phone interview recently. We were discussing the alarming number of car crash fatalities involving young people in the Beaver Dam area, and instead of the formal, rehearsed "this is a tragic day for (blank)" speech I've come to expect from many officials, he spoke to me from the heart.

Nehls lamented the lack of activities for young people in the small community to keep them from drinking in the country, a popular past time in Smalltown Wisconsin. Nehls and I compared notes about our individual small towns, and the perception that one must drive everywhere.

Throughout the conversation, his emotions ranged from deep regret through frustration and even borderline anger when he told me one story. As they were taking the body of one young person from the car she was killed in, Nehls told me they found the obituary of one of her classmates, killed several weeks before, in the glove box.

It was one of the most real conversations I've ever had with an official, but Nehls can always be counted on to bypass the bullshit. I'm always willing to buy for anyone who's that sincere.


Megan said...

Jeff Smith is a FANTASTIC guy to have a drink with!

michael d said...

That's really cool. It's a shame that more public figures aren't comfortable being themselves. I particularly like the non-plastic coated response from the sheriff.

Dustin Christopher said...

Megan, you can't just hint at it like that! Now you have to tell your drinking with Jeff Smith story!

Bryan Kerrigan said...

It's cool, we're taking it back.