Rob Portman Is No Chicken, but He Did Play One on TV

Ben Schreckinger
National Journal

The line on Sen. Rob Portman, a leading contender in soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s veepstakes, is that he’s safe—the only guy boring enough to not overshadow Romney on a national ticket. But it seems the junior senator from Ohio isn’t all golf and mutual funds after all.

Interviews with people close to Portman reveal another side to the man. Turns out, he likes to live dangerously—he’s an avid outdoor adventurer—and he’s got a mischief-making streak, a hippie past, and a passion for a radical, now-defunct religious sect. And anyone who calls a Romney-Portman ticket “the bland leading the bland,” as comic Stephen Colbert recently did, hasn’t seen the senator’s chicken impression.

Still not convinced?

While kayaking with his son Will in Chile earlier this year, Portman dislocated his right shoulder after his boat flipped. He found himself hurtling through the rapids unable to use one arm. Meanwhile, Will was too far ahead to be aware of his dad’s plight.

(TIMELINEWho is Rob Portman?)

Luckily for Portman, his life didn’t flash before his eyes. Instead, he thought of a scene from Lethal Weapon 2 in which actor Mel Gibson, playing cop Martin Riggs, intentionally dislocates his shoulder and then relocates it by slamming it against a filing cabinet. Channeling Gibson, Portman slammed his shoulder into a rock, regained the use of his arm and swam to safety. No word on whether he deadpanned, as Riggs’s fictional partner usually did, “I’m too old for this s—,” afterward.

It wasn’t the first time Portman has risked life and limb way, way outside the Beltway. During his successful Senate run in 2010, he took off for a mountain-biking trip in Wyoming, again with Will. The day before he was scheduled to return to Ohio, Portman flipped over the handlebars and snapped his collarbone in two. Days later and less than 36 hours out of surgery, he was back out on the campaign trail speaking at a tea party event.

There is a whiff of danger about many of Portman’s wilderness excursions. He has paddled the length of the Rio Grande, and he smuggled a kayak into China in the ’80s for an unauthorized cruise down the Yangtze. Along with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Portman once snuck a kayak into the pool at the House gym. “We operated on the principle that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” says Udall, himself a dedicated outdoorsman.

It is also worth noting Portman’s membership in the ultra-exclusive .1 percent.

No, not that 1 percent. According to Lee Robinson, a Cincinnati neighbor who sometimes accompanies the senator out on the water, “99.9 percent” of kayakers need the help of a paddle to right an overturned kayak. Portman, whose personal wealth is in fact in the millions of dollars, is among the elite minority who can perform a hand roll, which does not involve use of a paddle.

And though Robinson says, “I don’t know if Rob was ready to sever limbs, necessarily,” he compares the senator’s poise on a recent kayaking expedition through the Grand Canyon to that of Aron Ralston, the outdoors enthusiast who became famous for amputating his own arm after being trapped with it pinned under a boulder for days.

So we’ve established that Rob Portman is no chicken. But he does play one on TV. In an appearance on a CNBC roundtable discussion, a mention of the word “egg” prompted Portman to interrupt the conversation by breaking into an impression of a chicken. The 50-second clip of his respectable imitation is worth watching.

The chicken incident demonstrates another characteristic that saves Portman from the “bland” label: his sense of humor. The senator has a history of prank-playing, and former Rep. Rick Lazio of New York, Portman’s roommate in Washington when both served in the House in the ’90s, has been the butt of many of them.

Once, when both men were part of a congressional delegation to Germany, Portman slipped an exotic variety of kiwi—according to Lazio, “it almost looks it’s got long hair growing out of it”—under the New Yorker’s bedcovers. When he first discovered it, Lazio thought he was sharing his bed with a rodent.

The incident set off a bit of a kiwi war between the two congressmen.

Portman pulled off a coup when he caught wind of a swanky event for Lazio’s major political donors and recruited a waiter working the event to his side. In front of the donors, the waitstaff brought Lazio a large, covered silver platter and, with much fanfare, lifted the cover to reveal … a kiwi.

The occasional dead bee or tarantula has also turned up where Lazio wished it hadn’t. “I didn’t sufficiently get him back for any of this stuff,” says Lazio, who also maintains, “You couldn’t have a better friend than Rob Portman.”

Speaking of Portman’s friends, his college crew at Dartmouth is not the one you’d expect of someone now billed as the paradigm of a GOP straight arrow. Despite the prevalence of Greek life on the campus, Portman skipped the frats and ran with a crowd nicknamed “the Granola Gang” for their hippie vibe and love of the outdoors. They didn’t mix much with the Wall Street-bound bunch, and many went on to enter the Peace Corps and the renewable-energy sector. Today, the rest of the gang, which includes Obama energy adviser Dan Reicher and New Hampshire’s Democratic House candidate Ann Kuster, is solidly blue.

“It was a pretty crunchy group of people,” says Kuster, who with Portman once hauled a whole turkey to a Dartmouth-owned cabin in the White Mountains and attempted to cook it.

Then there’s Portman’s passion for the Shakers, an American religious movement known for furniture-making and a total commitment to celibacy. OK, so that is a little boring, but it’s also unique. Nowhere on is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida described as “a lifelong Shaker enthusiast.”

So how did Portman get a rap as the most boring, if safest, VP pick on the market? Largely it’s because Portman’s personal life is not likely to grab any headlines.

Even in the 1970s, as a young, long-haired congressional intern for Rep. Bill Gradison, a Republican whom he would one day succeed in office, Portman was no wild man. “Work hard? Yes,” says Jonathan Petuchowski, who worked for Gradison alongside him. “Party hard? No.”

Ditto at Michigan Law School. “I have no memory of him with a lamp shade on his head,” says Frank Ballantine, a law-school roommate who does have many memories of Portman cross-country skiing.

That pattern has remained stable through two decades in Washington as he served in high-powered roles such as director of the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. trade representative. Ballantine recalls that at the recent wedding of a mutual friend, Portman spent much of the night entertaining a 6-year-old.

Perhaps the most exotic thing about Portman as a politician, then, is that, in the words of both Petuchowski and Lazio, he’s “down to earth.” It’s a trait so rarely seen in Washington that when it comes along, it can easily be mixed up with “boring.”