WASHINGTON – Sir Elton John, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, flew into Washington to testify Wednesday before members of the United States Senate – or, as they might more accurately be described, the Madmen Across the Water.
He had been called before an Appropriations subcommittee to speak about the importance of foreign aid, and particularly international AIDS spending. But, as might be expected of a 68-year-old rocker who did a large quantity of banned substances in his day, the witness occasionally veered off message – as when he described his life before he took up the cause of AIDS.
“My life was completely disordered,” Sir Elton, seated to the right of the evangelical minister Rick Warren, told the senators. “I was a drug addict. I was a self-obsessed [bad word for anus].”
On the dais, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the subcommittee chairman, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., until recently the president pro tempore of the Senate, could not hide grins.
There were several such unusual moments over the course of two hours: Warren clasping the gay musician’s hand and joking about them kissing each other, Graham telling photographers to get “back in your cages,” Leahy addressing the gathering on the topic of his wife’s popularity, and another committee member, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., breaking into Spanish. Graham expressed pity for the stenographer.
“Very earthy committee we have here,” the chairman said.
The Rocket Man’s language may have been even saltier if he had been told what had happened before the hearing. Witnesses and senators alike talked about the crucial importance of foreign aid and the need to protect it from budget cuts. But the evening before, a majority of senators – including Graham – voted to approve a budget resolution that cuts foreign aid.
Democrats complain that the Republican-authored budget resolution for fiscal 2016 cuts $1.1 billion from foreign aid next year and $47 billion over 10 years. President Obama had requested an increase from the current level of just over $50 billion. Members of the panel sidestepped this awkward situation, instead vowing to keep the foreign-aid budget from falling victim to even larger cuts that would have occurred under automatic “sequestration” rules.
Graham said foreign-aid spending “is the smartest use of federal dollars of any place within the federal government.” He vowed to make sure “we not abandon this account at a time we’re so close to achieving the purposes of this account, which is to change the world in a positive fashion.”
Sir Elton, in rose-colored sunglasses and wearing a purple polka-dot tie to liven up his business suit, was pitch perfect on this point. “There is a window of opportunity before us, a window through which we can very clearly see the end of AIDS within my lifetime. We cannot afford to let the window close,” he told the senators. “This is the most powerful legislative body in the world, and this Congress indeed has the power to end AIDS.”
But on Wednesday, the powerful legislators were star-struck.
Leahy stood in the hallway with camera-toting tourists and staffers, waiting for the singer to arrive. “Sir Elton,” the Democrat said in his opening statement, “we’ve known each other a number of years.”
Graham tried to one-up Leahy. “I’d like to mention that Bono could not be here today,” he said. “He’s had a very difficult accident. … He’s communicated with me several times regretting not being able to be here.” (Bono sang Tuesday at the funeral for Dave Goldberg in California.)
But Leahy was not to be outdone. “Can I just interject there?” he asked. “When I called him 1 / 8Bono 3 / 8 after his accident – he was back in Dublin – he said the fellow members of the band said it’s a good thing he was wearing his helmet so he didn’t damage the sidewalks of New York.”
Graham, who posed for photos with Sir Elton after the hearing, was awed just by the simple act of the witness finishing his statement in the allotted minutes. “Ended right on time – it’s amazing!” Graham said.
Sir Elton, the aging pop star causing all this swooning, waxed philosophic about America (“This country gave everything to me as a professional musician, and it’s given everything to me as a human being”).
Graham thought the performance a triumph. “After this, how would you like to vote against this account? What would you say?” he asked.
Graham should know. Only hours earlier, he and his Senate colleagues cast just such a vote.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.