Sen. Ron Johnson is reading a book to ten cute kids at a community health clinic on South Park Street. The book is about a dinosaur who cleans his room and never does naughty things like shove his dirty socks to the back of his dresser drawer.
As I look around this Thursday afternoon, I count as many grownups taking pictures with clunky cameras as kids. Even the Senator's aide is snapping photos with his cell phone.
Click, click, click!
The senator isn't bad at this reading thing, even if a six-year-old in a baseball cap complains he's not holding the book right. "I can't even see!" Enrique says. "Sorry," Johnson says, fixing the problem. (If only all constituent issues were so simple.)
He may be dressed in tasseled loafers, a spiffy red tie and an immaculately cut pin-stripe suit, but he's not afraid to go off book. "You can learn a few things from dinosaurs," he tells the children. "The dinosaur is teaching you tricks," he says at another point. "He picks up all his toys and puts them in rows."
Enrique isn't so sure about that idea. "You know, I just leave everything all out!" he says.
Maybe five or ten minutes and dozens of photos later, the senator is done reading How do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague and Book! Book! Book! by Deborah Bruss.
He gets top marks from one of the organizers of this event, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, who teaches medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and practices at the Access Community Health Center on Park Street, a nonprofit clinic for low-income families that participates in the literacy program Reach Out and Read.
"He was't doing straight reading, he was doing the technique of dialogic reading, which is what we are trying to train parents to do," Navsaria says. What he means is that Johnson chatted with the kids about the book and didn't just read it to them in a monotone; middle class and wealthy parents do this easily but low income parents often need to be taught, he says.
Reach Out and Read, profiled recently in a New York Times article, gets doctors to prescribe free new books and lots of family reading to patients starting at six months of age.
Johnson's office contacted the Madison branch suggesting the visit. Apparently it fit nicely into a day in town that included an appearance on Vicki McKenna's talk show and a stop at a fundraiser for the Dane County Young Republicans at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
But some people found something sour about all these sweet pictures of the senator reading to children in a Madison community health clinic.
"Just this morning I was watching Fox News and the senator was on talking about repealing the health care act, the one hope many of these kids have," says Robert Kraig of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. "And then he goes off and has a photo opp at a community health center? That posturing is very inconsistent with what he is proposing."
Like other Republican congressmen including most notably Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, Johnson has called not only for the repeal of the federal health care reform law but for a drastic reduction of spending on Medicaid programs like Wisconsin's BadgerCare plans.
"There's a stark contrast between the warm and fuzzy image of him reading to children and the extreme Draconian cuts he wants to propose that will cut millions of kids like these off health care," Kraig says.
Well, maybe not all these kids. Turns out many of those listening to Johnson were not actual patients at Access, but children of staffers' friends who had responded to an appeal for live bodies for what in politics is called a "media opp" or media opportunity.
Maybe the read-aloud session was orchestrated for the senator's visit, but staff at Access have distributed hundreds of books to patients there over the years, and so they say they never hesitated when asked if the clinic could be used as a backdrop.
Besides, it gave them a great chance to get some publicity for the important work Access Community Health Centers does, too. "I love showing this place to anybody," says CEO Dr. Kenneth Loving, who was eager to push politics aside. "What we do is not partisan." (Loving said the same during my Q and A with him last winter.)
Loving uses the senator's brief visit as a chance to give him a brief tour and to "educate him," as he put it, about the important and cost-effective work such community health clinics---17 in Wisconsin and 1,200 across the country--- do in taking care of the people "who have fallen through the cracks."
On the tour Johnson seems most interested in talking about some of the new ways electronic technology and digital X-rays can make medicine more efficient. "Pretty whiz bang stuff," he says.
Loving tries to put the focus back on his patients by observing that such technology certainly is awesome but that it also offers the poor at his clinic, many of whom have limited transportation options, the chance to get all their needs taken care of in one spot.
"Thanks for the tour," Johnson says after five minutes.
As he heads out, I ask him how he feels about the possibility that some of the children he was reading to could lose important health care coverage if Republicans suceed in dismantling the national health care law and paring back Medicaid programs.
It isn't a very polite question---afterall, I basically was accusing him of using the children as props---but he responds with the same patient tone he had while talking to the kids about keeping their rooms clean. This country has to learn to do a better job handling its money and debt, he says. "The fact is our nation is bankrupting ourselves with all the commitments we've made," he says. "This is not ideology. It's math."
Our country is no different than a family that should only buy a house with a mortgage it can afford, he explains. Okay, I say, but let's say that family has some members who don't have enough to eat and can't fend for themselves and.... He interupts me. "Just because I'm a Republican doesn't mean I don't have compassion," he says. "The government's role should be helping people help themselves."
To end our conversation on a lighter note, I ask him what favorite books he read to his three children when they were younger. They all loved Curious George, he says, but then he started to read the Wall Street Journal to his son. (I didn't think of asking him why he didn't read the paper to his two daughters until it was too late.)
How old was his son when he started reading him the Wall Street Journal? I ask.
Four or five, he says. It stuck. Now he happily reads the paper to himself. And probably puts his dirty socks straight into the wash, too.