WASHINGTON — During a week of real-life political drama, Capitol Hill made way for three Hollywood celebrities Wednesday.
Ben Affleck testified before the House Armed Services Committee on how the U.S. might curb violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And as a treat to senators, leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell scheduled a private screening of “Lincoln” and a question-and-answer session afterward with director Steven Spielberg and the film’s stars, including Daniel Day-Lewis.
It is often said in Washington, usually with good-humored self-awareness and a little insecurity, that the nation’s capital is “Hollywood on the Potomac”: An industry town in the spotlight and in a bubble, albeit with less glamorous inhabitants. But Wednesday’s stars left the Capitol star-struck.
For an hour before Reid trotted out the “Lincoln” celebrities for a photo-op, journalists and staffers crowded the Ohio Clock Corridor, waiting.
“This is so exciting!” said one reporter as he waited to catch a brief glimpse of Spielberg and Day-Lewis.
“This is more people than I’ve ever seen at a press conference,” another marveled.
Indeed, the event swamped any that had been held to discuss the fiscal cliff negotiations.
Earlier, in an unrelated star turn, Affleck caused a minor stir of his own.
After the Armed Services Committee had discussed for roughly two hours the myriad grave issues facing the Congo, including its shockingly high rate of rape, among the highest in the world, the first witnesses filed out so that a new cast, Affleck among them, could take its place.
A gaggle of photographers rushed to grab a shot.
“I don’t know why the media seems to be quite interested in this hearing,” Rep. Buck McKeon, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, joked.
Affleck took his role more seriously.
“My name is Ben Affleck,” he said redundantly. “I am the founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative.”
Affleck has traveled to the Congo many times in that capacity, and came armed with a lengthy set of prepared remarks. He sped through those, trying to squeeze his broad thoughts into the committee’s five-minute limit for opening statements.
“I’m rushing to get through the five minutes, which I think I passed 15 minutes ago,” Affleck apologized, taking a breath.
McKeon, clearly unconcerned, grinned back, holding the gavel to his chin in repose.
Over the course of three hours, the committee’s discussion centered on whether the U.S., which currently sends more than $400 million to the Congo annually, should help train the country’s troops to defend against rebel-driven violence.
“I don’t think the U.S. can continue being the world’s police cop,” Republican Rep. Austin Scott said during the committee’s sober pre-Affleck session.
Later, under a celebrity’s high-wattage gaze, the tone changed.
“Mr. Affleck, if you could put a positive thing on this,” said Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Talk to me about some of the positive stuff that is going on right now in the DRC.”