Only five days into her first term as a member of Congress, Sheila Jackson Lee hurried into her small office in the Longworth Building. Back home, while serving on the Houston City Council, Lee had forged a reputation as a brusque and imperious boss, and her short time in Washington hadn't changed her. "I want that ASAP" seemed to be her favorite phrase -- and on this day, she had a rush order for her legislative director, Meredith Jones.
In January 1995, the 104th Congress was fizzing with the arrival of Newt Gingrich's freshman warriors. Lee, one of the relatively few new Democrats, was determined to make a splash on the House floor. She coolly informed Jones that the staff had 30 minutes to craft an amendment to a piece of legislation that neither they, nor Lee, had ever seen.
Unlike Lee, Jones was an old hand on Capitol Hill, a ten-year veteran who had worked for Congressman Mike Andrews. She had a reputation as a nuts-and-bolts operative and seemed the perfect navigator for a freshman legislator unfamiliar with Washington do's and don'ts.
Clearly, what Lee was requesting was a don't: Don't waste the time of the other 434 members of the House with a frivolous, ill-considered amendment. A former Lee staffer explains the absurdity of the congresswoman's demand: "Look, you're a freshman. You're in the minority. You don't even know what the goddamn bill is that's being offered. How are you going to offer an amendment to it when you don't even know where the ladies' bathroom is?"
Jones tried not to offend her new employer as she gently explained that rushing to the floor with a slipshod amendment would only damage Lee's credibility. Give the staff more time, pleaded Jones, to do some research and come up with amendments that had a chance of attracting respectful discussion, if not passage, in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Lee glared. When Jones finished, the congresswoman barked, "You now have 29 minutes!"
That incident reveals much about Sheila Jackson Lee. Jones did produce an amendment -- but like a myriad of others that the congresswoman offered in her first term, it went nowhere, while alienating the very people who could make it possible for her to represent her district effectively.
It's a cost Lee has been willing to bear as she pursues other imperatives: Speak, Be Seen, Be Quoted. She won her seat in Congress by defeating Craig Washington, who had lost contact with his constituents. Lee is determined not to make the same mistake, and frenetically tries to ensure that voters in the 18th Congressional District hear and see her on an almost daily basis.
In case the folks back home didn't know that the new congresswoman was hard at work, Lee instructed her staff to spew out mounds of press releases, sometimes four or five a day. Aides were also told to write "special orders" speeches for Lee to deliver at the end of the day to an empty House chamber -- and, more important, to a C-Span camera, and thus to cable-TV viewers in Houston. Lee also demanded scripts for the one-minute partisan presentations that members make at the start of the House's daily sessions. It's not unusual for members to make such speeches, but Lee wanted to make one almost every day. As her term wore on, other members of Congress compared her to the kid in the Life cereal commercial: "She's like Mikey. Give it to Mikey, he eats anything. Give it to Sheila, she speaks on anything."
Former aides say that Lee seemed oblivious to the basic rules of establishing a congressional career and refused to take the most common-sense advice on maintaining credibility and serving constituents' needs. Such obtuseness disappointed her staff, who'd come to work for her with high hopes. Most of her original aides were black, female or both. To them, Lee must have seemed nearly perfect: an outspoken young black congresswoman, a liberal Democrat elected in a year of Republican gains. But any hopes they had were soon shattered.
Lee couldn't keep employees. In her first two years, 19 staffers came and went. Her turnover rate -- 180 percent in two years -- was the highest of any member of Congress, according to the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call.
It might be argued that Lee's faults as a boss would be overlooked in a politician who is white or male. But former employees maintain that her behavior would be notable regardless of race or gender, and they're in a position to know. Many now work for government agencies or private enterprises with government contracts. (Nearly all asked not to be quoted by name, for fear of damaging their employers or their careers.) Of the onetime employees who spoke with the Press, many were female, and most were black.
To be sure, some former Lee aides -- such as Lauri Andress, a City Council aide to Lee, and Clarence Bagby, who worked in her district congressional office -- remain loyal to Lee, and say they would consider working for her again if asked. But most former employees interviewed by the Press say they'd never repeat the experience.
"She is the boss from hell," says one former assistant, a young black woman. "She treats everybody like her slaves. To give you an idea of what I thought my [time] with Sheila was like, it was a slave plantation, and she was the master."
Meredith Jones, the aide commanded to produce an amendment in 30 minutes, won't discuss the specifics of her short employment by Lee, but Jones's resignation has become legend among the congresswoman's staff. After 11 frustrating days on the job, Jones faced her office computer terminal, tapped out a letter of resignation and walked to the Capitol, where Lee was attending a Judiciary Committee meeting. Jones approached as her boss was asking a question, deposited her letter and walked away. For once, Lee was speechless.
Lee didn't bring a car to Washington and declined to lease one. Instead, she depended on her staff to get her around.
"She would give me a time to pick her up in the morning," remembers a former staffer. "You'd get there every morning, usually around nine, and you'd wait between 30 minutes to an hour. Just sitting there, doing nothing."
That petty humiliation particularly grated. "She'd ask you to be there at nine, waiting, summer, winter, spring," remembers another reluctant driver. "Then it would be ten o'clock and she would still not be there. You'd wait the longest time and she would still not be there .... If it was terribly cold or hot, you're sitting there in your suit, sweating in this metal oven. Or freezing."
More galling than the actual driving was Lee's attitude toward her drivers. "She just didn't care," says a former legislative assistant. "She'd come down an hour late and want you to open the door for her .... She's not cognizant of anybody except herself. Everything revolves around her."
Other members of Congress live in Lee's building, less than three short blocks from the Capitol. While waiting for Lee, her staffers watched other lawmakers walk out of the building, laughing and talking, drinking coffee and enjoying the short walk to work. Sometimes, after Lee finally appeared, she would offer rides to her pedestrian colleagues. Her drivers do not recall anyone ever accepting the offer.
The morning pickup was often matched by an evening of chauffeuring Lee around town. Junior employees took turns filling the "late-night shift." One young staffer spent three hours waiting outside an embassy affair. When Lee returned, she capped the boring, dispiriting evening with a gruff, "Take me home."
"If you're at an embassy, surely you can get a guard to call you a fucking cab when the time comes," snorts a former aide. "You've got pocket change, lady. You make $133,000." To make matters worse, staffers usually had to pay for their own gas.
Unnecessary as chauffeur services seem, they can be characterized as an administrative necessity, and therefore allowed by Congress's own rules. But Lee has skirted the rules banning government employees from performing personal services for elected officials. She frequently asked her staff to perform personal errands, such as driving her to appointments with her doctor or buying stockings for her. Last February, an article in Roll Call detailed Lee's unusual demands. Unnamed Lee staffers described driving their boss to the hairdresser and picking up her laundry.
Lee insists all staff duties were necessary to the performance of her official duties, and therefore fall within congressional guidelines. But apparently, "necessary" includes her personal grooming.
"I do know people would take her to the hairdresser," says a former staffer, "because I had to do it once." When Lee asked for the ride, the staffer was under the impression that she was going to a press conference. Instead, she directed him to deposit her at a downtown salon, and to pick her up later for a return trip to the office.
The senior aides who had the credentials to stand up to Lee often did, refusing to drive her or perform the more obvious personal chores. More and more, says one witness, Lee took advantage of junior staffers, who were intimidated by her status and did not know they could refuse.
"These poor little 22-year-olds who are making peanuts are forced into incredibly stressful situations and forced to do things she's not legally, morally or ethically allowed to compel them to do," says the former staff member. "Then on top of that, they're unceremoniously fired."
One of the people Lee dismissed was James Daily, an MIT graduate in engineering. He was one of Lee's most outspoken assistants, and one of the few who flatly refused most requests to drive Lee to events and perform personal services. Now working at a technology company in the Washington area, he views his time with Lee as an eye-opening, if extremely unpleasant, episode.
Daily, a political novice fresh out of school, landed the job with an entree provided by his grandparents, who were close friends of the late Mickey Leland, one of Lee's predecessors in the 18th District. Daily says he signed on with the congresswoman because she seemed "a very strident, opinionated person, the sort of person I tend to be. And forceful, seemingly intelligent. I thought, 'Okay, I can do this.' "
As a legislative assistant, Daily covered the Science Committee, one of Lee's major assignments, and one that she gave high priority. She had beaten Craig Washington in part because he took unpopular stands against the space station and the supercollider. Both Lee and Daily understood that for her district, a pro-technology position was a political necessity.
At first, Daily found his job challenging and interesting. He didn't mind that his days began at 8:30 a.m. and often lasted until late evening. The presence of chief of staff Pauline Higgins, a Houston lawyer who had left Exxon to run Lee's office, also helped. Higgins provided a buffer between the staff and Lee. During December 1995, for instance, Higgins told staffers to take the long Christmas-through-New Year's break that is standard in Congress. Lee, though, ordered them to stay. Eventually, Higgins confronted the congresswoman and told her that people had already made plans and bought airplane tickets, and that the holiday could not be revoked.
(Higgins is not able to give her own account of working for Lee. After Higgins left the staff, she had to threaten legal action to receive back pay from the congresswoman. One of the terms of their agreement was a confidentiality clause that prohibits Higgins from discussing her stint with Lee.)
Daily grew frustrated by Lee's insistence on amending almost every piece of legislation that moved in her committees, and often on the House floor, where amendments that haven't been approved in advance by party managers usually have no chance of acceptance.
"She didn't care what it was," he says. "She had no idea what she wanted, so we'd have to go find something that was at least halfway pertinent. It could be as minor as changing one number to another."
For a Medicare bill, Daily concocted an amendment to expand the coverage of mammography exams for women over a certain age. Like almost all Lee amendments, it was not accepted, and to her staff, the exercise seemed bizarre. "She knew they weren't going to allow any amendments," recalls Daily. "Everyone on Capitol Hill knows the Rules Committee wasn't going to allow amendments. Yet she had us do all this anyway."
Of an estimated 30 to 40 amendments the congresswoman put forth in her first term, only two offered on the House floor passed: one increasing the funding for the African Development Foundation, and another requiring the State Department to weigh Ethiopia's human-rights progress before awarding the country funds. Lee's office says several other amendments were accepted in committee. While those passage numbers are more than adequate for a freshman, former aides say Lee's barrage of amendments irritated fellow committee members, with little other effect.
When Lee sat for an interview with the Press, she defended her spew of amendments, explaining that former staffers didn't realize the value of the legislation they wrote. She produced an imposing list of "near passes" that she said would have become law if only Democrats had been in the majority. And she maintained that many of her former employees weren't used to laboring in the minority and having to fight for every bill. "This was a shocking experience to come into," she explained. "The good thing about me was I didn't know anything else." Lee said that more senior members of Congress passed fewer amendments.
But ex-aides wonder who Lee is fighting for. "I don't believe she came to Washington with a legislative agenda," says one. "I think she's out for her own personal benefit, to make a national name for herself. I think now she realizes she's stepped into some big shoes, not so much Craig Washington but Mickey Leland and Barbara Jordan. And she probably can't hold a candle to them."
Another former employee is more acidic: "She's not fit to carry their tennis shoes."
Friends and foes alike agree that Sheila Jackson Lee is unique in Houston's African-American political realm. For starters, she was born in New York City. Unlike Washington, Leland and Jordan -- all previous representatives from the 18th District -- Lee did not grow up in the inner-city wards or pass through the academic halls of Texas Southern University. State representative Sylvester Turner shares Lee's outsider status in the local black power structure, but relative to Lee, he's an insider: He grew up in the north Houston community of Acres Homes and attended the University of Houston before heading to Harvard. Justice of the Peace Al Green, who grew up in New Orleans, is perhaps Houston's only other high-profile black official to hail from outside the city.
Perhaps conscious of Houston's preference for homegrown politicians, Lee plays down the fact that she was born in the Jamaica section of Queens, and that her grandparents on her father's side are Jamaican immigrants. In fact, when she first ran for office, the candidate profile submitted to the Houston Chronicle listed her birthplace as Houston.
Even today, she offers biographical details grudgingly. She describes herself as "a very private person" and refuses to reveal what her parents did for a living or what high school she attended. Previous articles about Lee yield these facts: Her late father, Ezra, was a day laborer who aspired to be a cartoonist. Her mother, Ivalita, worked evenings as a nurse. Lee has one brother, Michael. Before Ezra's death last fall, he told the Chronicle's Texas Magazine that his daughter had always been a driven person. "I don't know where she got her drive," he said, "but she's always had it; she's always been like that."
Lee describes serving in student government at her unnamed middle and high schools. She notes that she was forced to serve in positions relegated to girls, including secretary, while boys held the more prestigious offices. She earned her undergraduate degree from Yale, where she met fellow student Elwyn Cornelius Lee, a Houstonian. After graduation, she attended law school at the prestigious University of Virginia, while Elwyn remained at Yale. She joined him there to complete her final year of law courses, and they married.
In the late '70s, the couple moved to Houston, and Elwyn accepted a teaching post at the University of Houston law school. Eventually, he moved into UH administration as vice president of student affairs, dealing primarily with minority students. While Lee is in Washington, Elwyn handles the family's domestic life. Both their children are in school in Houston: 15-year-old Erica at Bellaire High School and nine-year-old Jason at St. John's, an exclusive private school in River Oaks.
Once in Houston, Sheila worked at a series of legal jobs, starting with a two-year stint in the energy section of the downtown law firm Fulbright & Jaworski. According to former associates, Lee and the firm's management did not see eye to eye, and she moved on to Union Texas Petroleum. Later, she worked in the legal office of Booker Morris, a longtime supporter who has run several of her campaigns.
At political forums and community gatherings, Lee began to attract notice -- or rather, to demand it. Reporters of the time recall a determined young woman who methodically buttonholed members of the media, thrust out her hand and declared, "Hi, I'm Sheila Jackson Lee."
"She's a different bird from people you meet here," says a black Houston politician outside the congresswoman's camp. "She's kind of a carpetbagger from Queens. That's why her political table manners are so bad .... [She has] that kind of dog-eat-dog attitude, that Jamaican attitude."
Lee ran three times for judicial positions -- twice for district judge and once for probate court. Because of Harris County's strong Republican tilt, veteran black politicos considered the races suicidal.
It was during her unsuccessful attempts to win a judgeship that she met Willie Isles, a behind-the-scenes political player who resembles Richard Roundtree, the star of Shaft. Isles says he immediately recognized in Lee an innate political gift: the ability to project her name and image in ways normal politicians can't. And he set out to play Henry Higgins to Lee's Eliza Doolittle.
"Sheila Jackson Lee is not a politician," stresses Isles. "She's a public servant .... She happens to be elected, but her real strength is that if there is someone who is ill, she will go visit the person that's sick. If someone loses a family member, she will show up at the church." As for Lee's knack for appearing on TV, he laughs heartily: "She's got that down to perfection. Every time you look around, she's on camera."
After Anthony Hall vacated his at-large position on City Council, Isles called his protege. "Sheila Jackson Lee," he told her, "your name is on that seat."
That 1989 race marked Lee's breakthrough. Isle credits Lee's dogged self-promotion for giving her enough name recognition to beat former city controller Leonel Castillo. Besides that, she had the advantage of a huge black turnout, stimulated by the heated congressional race between Hall and Craig Washington, both high-powered black political figures.
After losing three elections, Lee had finally won. She served two full terms on the Council and won a third. On the day she was sworn in for the third time, she announced that she'd set her sights higher: She was running for Congress against Craig Washington.
Washington, a gifted lawyer but flawed politician, had squandered what might have been a lifetime tenure in his congressional seat. He alienated the downtown business establishment, and his two-term record included questionable hiring practices and office expenditures. He frequently missed House votes; when he did vote, he often opposed projects dear to his district, such as the space station. He was ripe to be challenged, and Lee was bold enough to do it.
"We went up against the [black] establishment," remembers Isles. "She didn't grow up in Fifth Ward, and it's been a Fifth Ward-Third Ward game for years.
"Well, now," he laughs, "that party's over."
Lee trounced Washington in the Democratic primary, sealing her victory with heavy support among white and female voters. And despite her dubious first-term record in Washington and a court-ordered redistricting that reduced the African-American population of the 18th District, Lee easily won a second term last November over nominal opposition.
With her assertive manner and resonant speaking voice, Lee makes a terrific first impression. But that first impression often goes sour.
Of the 13 Democrats first elected to House seats in 1994, Lee appeared to be a star. She was elected president of the Class of '94, and -- unusual for a freshman -- was among a select group of members invited to the White House to discuss policy with President Clinton. According to Lee's former staffers, Clinton soon got his fill of Lee's overamped presentations.
"She was banned from the White House," chuckles Daily. "She was loud, mouthy, trying to get everybody's attention. She's kind of grabby, you know?"
"All she wanted was self-promotion, like getting Clinton to come visit her district," says another former senior aide. "I think [the White House staff] just got tired of it."
Lee's freshman colleagues also grew tired of her and rewrote the rules concerning the presidency of their class. The position, instead of belonging to Lee, would rotate monthly to each freshman.
Another congressmember's chief of staff explains that Lee wasn't helping her classmates. "Part of the deal is, you help others among your freshman class get good assignments, because you are [on the committee] where they are deciding them," he says. Lee, her colleagues felt, wasn't sticking up for them.
Lee proceeded to wear out her welcome with the rest of Congress, which was buffeted by her fusillade of amendments, special orders and minute talks at the day's beginning. Speaking time is a limited commodity in a body with 435 members. Not only were Lee's frequent remarks seen as self-promotion, they also gummed up legislative business, wreaking havoc with debate schedules.
Most members of Congress try to become an expert on one or two issues: health care, for instance, or taxes. "You don't speak on everything to begin with," explains Gene Green of the Houston delegation. During his freshman term, Green recalls, "I spoke on education issues and labor issues that had a relationship to my district. I think I ran with one amendment on the floor of the House." As Green points out, if all 435 members tried to speak on every subject, the House would be paralyzed, a tower of Babel.
But though aides advised Lee to specialize, she refused. "She was just all over the place, speaking on everything," says a former legislative aide. "And as a result, most people saw her as a joke, a jack of all trades but a master in none."
House deputies eventually grew so concerned that one, Bill Richardson of New Mexico (now Clinton's nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), entreated members of the Texas delegation to bring Lee under control. According to one source, Richardson asked Green to convince fellow Democrat Lee to narrow her focus and speak only on a few issues. Green declined, telling Richardson that he did not think Lee would see the advice as constructive.
Eventually, several other members broached the subject with Lee. Says one colleague, "It didn't have any impact. Frankly, her response -- not to me, but to other members -- was that she was sent to Washington to be heard."
Lee denies this account. "I have never had any such dialogue," she says. "I don't even know what you are talking about."
Not surprisingly, Lee made few close ties to other lawmakers. While other members played cards together, or went out for lunch or dinner, or at least chatted casually on the floor of the House, Lee would stand apart and alone. "She doesn't have any close friends among the members," says a former aide. "And as a consequence, it's very difficult for her to get things done."
Lee often touts her appointment as whip to the Congressional Black Caucus as an indication of respect from fellow African-American members. But a former legislative aide explains that the whip's job isn't a coveted one. And besides, Lee has brittle relationships with other caucus members -- notably with California's Maxine Waters, who campaigned for Washington in his race against Lee.
"She's a loner," comments a former driver who attended events with Lee. "Sometimes you'd feel sorry for her because she was always alone. You'd see a crowd of congressmembers gathered together at some point in time, and she was there but always outside of the group."
That lack of connection hurt Lee two months ago, when she sought a coveted appointment to the Commerce Committee. Though Lee had the advantage of belonging to the Steering Committee, which decides appointments, she could not secure the recommendation of the Texas delegation. The delegation instead recommended Gene Green, and usually that decision would have settled matters; most often, the Steering Committee simply accepts a delegation's choice. But Lee refused to back off and contested Green's nomination in committee meetings. He was appointed anyway.
A staff member tried to discuss the matter with Lee, and remembers this response: "I don't care. Fuck them. I'm going to do what I want to do. I'm representing the people."
The question, of course, is how effectively she is representing them.
In Houston, Lee has become legendary for cruising every possible funeral, marriage or political gathering, and for seizing such opportunities to deliver thinly veiled political speeches. Last year, when her office coordinated Barbara Jordan's funeral, some local black officials grumbled that Lee had used the affair to burnish her own image, hogging all the camera angles with President Clinton.
The carping was even louder when Lee staged a Houston memorial for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash in Bosnia. Even Lee's own staff thought the memorial smacked of political opportunism. "She tried to give the impression she was a personal friend of his, which was not true," says a former legislative aide.
James Daily remembers one grim task that usually fell to a junior aide, Sean Connally. The Lee district office would occasionally call Washington with instructions from the congresswoman to produce letters commemorating the funerals of constituents' loved ones.
"We wouldn't know who they were," says Daily. Often, Connally used the Chronicle obituary as reference when typing the letter of condolence.
Lee says constituents expect her presence at their loved ones' gravesides: "Let me frankly say to you, I will continue to go to funerals because I am a member of the family. I have enough caring, have been around this community long enough and gone to enough churches, that there are people I know who pass away, and so I'll be there -- not out of any need other than to say this is a community family. This is what is comfortable to many of my constituents, and if I can provide a measure of support or dignity or added respect to the homegoing of their loved one, I will do that."
Even her detractors admit that her tactics have strengthened her support in the 18th District. But many question the taste of politicking at funerals. A lobbyist for a corporation that strongly backs Lee calls the spectacle "grotesque." And a former aide goes even further: "Personally, I think it's obscene and disrespectful to family members who are grieving. She's just campaigning."
Lee's supporters explain her high staff turnover by saying that most employees don't share her zeal for serving her district. After all, they say, didn't young Lyndon Johnson provide superlative constituent services while chewing through staff like a lawn mower?
Former Lee staffers point to a major difference between Lee and LBJ. "There are no good constituent services in her office," claims one. "How can you have it when you have such instability? Where do you have any follow-through? Each time you have to keep learning the issue over and over."
They also point out that Lee uses staff in ways that promote her own image at the expense of constituents. When staffers are required to accompany Lee to events or put in appearances on her behalf, they have less time to secure passports or track down late Social Security checks.
Toward the end of Lee's first term, she began avoiding her office. Instead, she camped on the House floor and spent hours inside the Capitol's Lindy Boggs Room, an area reserved for female members to relax, chat among themselves and meet with family or friends. Staffers believe that Lee was escaping visitors. Certainly, when her staff escorted the most determined souls to the Capitol to meet their congresswoman, she seemed less than ecstatic to greet them. They'd have to wait until Lee emerged from the floor or the Boggs Room, at which point she'd explain that she'd been busy voting. At least one aide didn't buy the excuse: "You do not vote all the time."
Sources outside Washington also attest that Lee's constituent services have been lacking. The office director for a state senator whose district overlaps Lee's laughs when asked about the subject, claiming that the state senator has received a stream of complaints and pleas for help from people who have not received satisfaction from Lee.
Apparently, Lee expects a degree of reverence from her constituents and is annoyed when she doesn't get it. According to a former aide, the congresswoman once requested a meeting with all the CEOs of major oil companies based in Houston and was infuriated that the executives' secretaries wanted to know the nature of the meeting. "Who the fuck do they think they are?" Lee reportedly responded. "I'm the congresswoman."
Advisor Willie Isles acknowledges the difficulties Lee has had in Washington and says that she's now at a crossroads.
"Here's what I've said to her," he recounts. " 'If you grow, you can be mayor or governor of the state. If you are not willing to grow and adapt to change, you may be as far as you can go.' "
A former legislative assistant is less hopeful. "She would get up in staff meetings and say, 'I'm not going to change,' " he remembers. "Her behavior is only going to get worse."
Late on a Monday afternoon, Lee is in Houston, working the phones from her sunlit corner office in the Mickey Leland Federal Building. She's running nearly an hour late for an interview, and an aide apologetically explains that the congresswoman is working to solve a constituent's problem. As it turns out, the constituent is hardly a little old lady with Medicare difficulties. Instead, Lee is on the phone with Gerald Smith -- a black investment banker whose campaign contributions helped her defeat Craig Washington.
When the call is finished, Lee and Kathi Smith, her Washington office chief, sit behind a coffee table in Lee's office. The congresswoman is gracious and for the most part unflappable.
Lee has been mentioned as a mayoral candidate, but that race, she says, isn't even on her radar. (She does not note that, just the previous day, she and two other potential candidates -- Lee Brown and Sylvester Turner -- met with a group of black ministers to discuss electing an African-American to the office.)
According to Lee, everything is fine in her Washington office. She maintains that her high staff turnover rate doesn't affect her constituents. In fact, she believes her staff turnover is nothing out of the ordinary.
Asked about various personal services she allegedly requested from her office workers, she offers a quick answer: "Anything that my staff does in my office is pursuant to congressional rules."
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Allowed by the rules, maybe. But is it appropriate to keep a worker sitting in a car for hours to chauffeur her to an office two and a half blocks away?
"Whatever staff does is pursuant to congressional business," she replies.
Only at one point does Lee's reputed temper surface. Asked why former staffers would invent stories of her rudeness and bad behavior, she begins a strange answer: "Why don't you check with people who have been in the Civil Rights movement or been under siege in the White House, whether it's been the Bush White House or the Clinton White House? Working hard and that kind of thing ...." She reaches for her own throat, and a Press photographer snaps a picture.
Lee is flustered, and asks that the photo not be used. Her voice becomes strained. "I am saying that seriously," she says. "I would like my picture not to be in there .... Is our tape working? ... It'll be on the tape that I asked that it not be in there."
Never mind the questions about serious employee allegations and tales of shameless self-promotion. Lee is more worried that a photo might be unflattering. For a few seconds, she reveals the frantically self-absorbed politician described by former employees -- the people in her realm who knew her best.