WASHINGTON — There are some who call it a betrayal most fowl.
And yet there is poultry evidence of wrongdoing. However you bill it, this is a quacking good controversy.
Our tale begins at Monday’s inauguration lunch in Statuary Hall in the Capitol. The session was arranged by Sen. Chuck Schumer, the voluble, publicity-loving Democrat from New York and aspiring majority leader who, by virtue of his status as chairman of the Senate rules committee, is the informal mayor of Capitol Hill.
It was Schumer’s job to arrange the inaugural festivities, and he did so with a profound display of parochialism: Although President Obama is from Hawaii by way of Illinois, and Vice President Biden is from Delaware, Schumer treated them to a performance by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and to a feast of 23 New York ingredients, including wine, water, cheese, apples, honey, yogurt and syrup.
It was the most audacious export of New York products since Gov. Eliot Spitzer arranged for a New York prostitute to meet him at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
But then came this unfortunate quote from Schumer, in an account by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times: “We were going to have Long Island duck. The duck was very good, but the preparation wasn’t great. We settled on South Dakota bison.”
South Dakota bison? At the very least he could have gone with Buffalo wings. The switch made Butch Yamali honking mad. The Long Island caterer called a news conference on Tuesday to denounce Schumer for “giving Long Island the bird” while the whole world was watching.
“Like the eagle is the symbol of America, the duck is the symbol of Long Island,” Yamali told me. “When you attack the duck, you’re attacking Long Island. You’re attacking almost 3 million people by taking the duck off the menu.”
Yamali, a Republican who gives money to both parties and says he voted for Schumer last time around, asserts that “duck is a nonpolitical issue.”
The offense was not the failure to serve the bird but that it was set to be served and then removed, as if it were tainted. “The word ‘duck’ is a badge of honor to Long Islanders, and it’s offensive to take the duck off the menu,” he charged. And that business about the “presentation” being weak? Long Island duck farmer Doug Corwin calls that a canard. “Pan sauteing a duck breast is one of the easiest things in the world and tastes better than filet mignon,” said Corwin, whose Crescent Duck farm raises a million birds a year. “Evidently they didn’t hire a caterer with enough culinary skills.”
If there is a moral of this story (and there must be if it is to be published on the op-ed page of a Serious Newspaper), it is a reminder that, even in an age of “fiscal cliffs” and debt ceilings, all politics remain local — whether it’s the Republican congressman reflexively opposing Obama because he fears a tea party primary challenge, or Schumer larding the inauguration with New York products.
Schumer won his seat by defeating Senator Pothole himself, Al D’Amato, and he has stuck with his predecessor’s example. But he who lives by constituent politics can also die by constituent politics — or at least be tarred and feathered by them. Schumer is rarely one to duck the press, but aides failed to produce him on Tuesday despite many requests.
“Anyone who thinks there wasn’t enough New York emphasis at the inauguration must be some sort of quack,” a spokesman, Matt House, offered gamely.
As a native of Yamali’s home town of Merrick, Long Island, I can attest that duck is revered by the locals, although you would not want to eat the ones I used to feed in the pond on Merrick Road.
The Long Island duck “has more notoriety than the Maine lobster,” Yamali asserted. “At the gateway to the Hamptons is a giant duck. Our baseball team is called the Long Island Ducks.” (Actually, my baseball team was the Mets, and I think of the Ducks as a hockey team from Anaheim — but I’ve been off the Island for many years.)
So it’s a serious flap, to be sure. But I hope Schumer survives it. He’s one of the more colorful characters in Washington. Waddle we do without him?
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays.