WASHINGTON - The biggest show in town yesterday was at the White House. But since the public couldn't get in to see the president and vice president meet with the 9/11 commission, Hollywood offered up a pretty good alternative.
Actor Ben Affleck was in town. And he is, as several people commented, just as good-looking in person.
He wore a dark suit, a blue shirt and gray monochrome tie, and strode into an ornate chamber located just off the Senate floor a mere five minutes late. The gilded room was crammed with reporters and congressional staffers; every seat was taken, and the walls were lined several people deep. Five television cameras rolled, and 10 microphones were jammed onto the lectern. This was not your typical Capitol Hill news conference.
This fact did not go unnoticed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "The last time we had a press conference on minimum wage, where were you?" he joked to the assembled media.
The news conference also featured Democratic Reps. George Miller and Linda T. Sanchez of California and Major R. Owens of New York, and was held to support a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage. Currently, that's $5.15 an hour. The new proposal, authored by Kennedy, would increase it to $7 an hour over two years, and mark the first increase since 1996.
But the spotlight yesterday wasn't on the new legislation (copies weren't even distributed). It shined brightly on Affleck.
Right away, he addressed a glaring question. Why is a multimillionaire actor championing minimum wage?
"Maybe Senator [Kennedy] saw my movie Gigli this fall and figured I'd be working for minimum wage soon myself, and this is in my self-interest," joked Affleck, referring to his recent box-office flop. He and Kennedy, he added, have something in common: "We rely on the same fickle whimsy of public opinion for our job security."
On a more earnest note, he said, "Minimum-wage workers don't have lobbyists, don't have special PACs."
Affleck didn't talk much about his blue-collar roots. His father and stepmother worked low-income jobs at Harvard University, his father as a janitor and his stepmother cleaning bathrooms. He also didn't mention a previous success in this arena, supporting wage increases for janitors at Harvard in 2001.
Then, a mere 20 minutes after the news conference began, Affleck and the elected officials left. A bevy of young staffers scooted through the marble halls after him. They cut through throngs of tourists visiting the Capitol and ran down the stairs and out the door. When they caught up with him, he posed briefly for photos. Then he climbed into his chauffeured black Suburban with tinted windows and rode away.
Meanwhile, just one block and two security checks away in the Cannon House Office Building, five economists were testifying before a House Small Business subcommittee. The hearing's topic: minimum wage.
This room was half-empty. One camera from CNN showed up, as did two members of Congress - the chairman of the panel, Rep. Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican, and the top Democrat, Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico. Akin seemed relieved to see his colleague: "You get three stars for coming," he told Udall.
But clearly this was a lesser level of star power. As the very un-Affleckian economists began to testify, those in the audience were eager to leave. It was, one hastily departing staffer whispered, enough to cure insomnia.
But then, so was Gigli.