Congress gets no respect Public relations man wants to buff image

May 16, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Is there a spin doctor in the House? Or Senate?

If any institution is in need of a little image rehab these days, it's the tired, tattered U.S. Congress. And Washington public relations man Victor Kamber would like to be the one to come to the rescue

A Republican-turned-Democrat, politico-turned-ad guy, Mr. Kamber says he has become so annoyed at the beating Congress has taken in public opinion, so frustrated with the "throw-the-bums-out" mentality that has gripped the nation, that he wants to start a foundation to teach Americans about the "substance" of their national legislative body.

He'd make it a bipartisan, non-profit affair, load its board with respectable, national names -- "a Walter Cronkite-type, a Jerry Ford or Howard Baker-type, corporate heads, academics, former members of Congress, trade union types, journalists and celebrities if they're not just celebrities" -- and call the whole thing the Friends of Congress Foundation.

Mr. Kamber publicly floated his proposal this week, placing a full page ad in last Monday's USA Today and mailing letters to 800 opinion leaders of both parties asking for their responses and advice.

Of course these days, with "incumbency" the wicked word of the Western world and Capitol Hill morale so low that motivational seminars are being offered there, he's not sure any such amigos exist.

After coming up with idea several months ago and letting it simmer during the House banking scandal, Mr. Kamber publicly floated his proposal this week, placing a full-page ad in last Monday's USA Today and mailing letters to 800 opinion leaders of both parties asking for their responses and advice.

He hasn't received any responses from the mailing yet, but the ad -- which ran with the headline "What You Don't Know About Congress Can Hurt You . . . And Endanger Our Democracy" -- resulted in about two dozen calls: about 20 against his idea from "yellers and screamers who think Congress is just a bunch of crooks and crazies," says Mr. Kamber. And two or three calls supporting the idea.

Still, the public relations executive, who has put up $10,000 of his own money, is convinced that there's a need for an organization that would "remind people what this representative body is all about."

The foundation would not defend lawmakers if they've done wrong or promote partisan issues, he says, but would educate people about the democratic process, specific bills that have passed, compromises that have been forged, debates that have raged, and in general "make for a more informed citizenry and thus, a better country."

"People think Congress is just a bunch of people on the take, abusing the system, arrogant, aloof, unresponsive, out of touch," says Mr. Kamber, who was a House administrative assistant in the '70s. "They have no idea what Congress does."

To enlighten the public, his foundation would focus on schools, producing new educational tools. The last movie made dealing with the passage of laws, says Mr. Kamber, is a '60s-vintage film featuring actors with sideburns and lapels as large as the national deficit.

Beyond that, the one-time Nixon campaign aide who is now a liberal Democrat, envisions a speakers bureau comprising former members of Congress and aides. And 60-second television spots -- a "Congressional Minute," perhaps, patterned after the "Bicentennial Minute" -- that would explain to viewers "what Congress means in your life."

Not surprisingly, the Friends idea has found supporters among Hill veterans who believe Congress' crisis in confidence results, at least in part, from the absence of such a public relations arm to sing its praises. "Congress is the one organization in the modern U.S. of A. that has nobody promoting it," says Rick

Shapiro, head of the Congressional Management Foundation. "Exxon's got somebody promoting it. General Motors does. The president does. Agencies do.

"If you have a media geared to raising flags and identifying screw-ups, and no one talking about the accomplishments or hard work that goes into the passage of a bill, it's not surprising the public has no respect for this institution."

Mr. Kamber hopes to have his operation off the ground by the summer so that television spots can hit in the fall

On the other hand, the whole idea could disappear faster than a photo op if there's little public interest -- if, as the P.R. executive says, "people really do believe Congress is just a bunch of bozos."

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