Knoxville News Sentinel: Scott Barker: How the congressman stole Christmas

Posted on December 19, 2010

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is one of America's favorite holiday stories. It's a tale of transformation, the story of a bitter old curmudgeon who's finally had enough of Christmas and decides to destroy it, only to discover his inner goodness.

You know the plot of Dr. Seuss' story. The Grinch robs the Whos down in Whoville of all their Christmas presents, decorations and the makings for their feast.

But when he hears the Whos singing, his withered heart grows three sizes and he returns his booty to his victims. He joins the celebration and even gets to carve the roast beast.

It's enough to make a reporter throw up.

Journalists are famous curmudgeons. We see a lot of bad stuff - murderers, thieves and con artists in both the private and public sectors. It can make you believe that human nature is, at its core, rotten.

I was chatting with a page designer the other day about the holidays, saying that I was in denial about the pending arrival of Christmas. A newly hired copy editor, fresh out of college, asked if I was a Grinch.

"Oh, yeah," I said proudly. All of us are Grinches. Evidence that every human heart is two sizes too small abounds.

For example, James Sensenbrenner, a congressman from Wisconsin (apparently, that's where Mt. Crumpit is located), might as well have the green pelt and spiked fingernails of the Grinch.

He's the guy who got so offended that an act extending residency status to the Japanese widow of a fallen Marine hadn't been vetted by his committee that he tried to kill the measure. In other words, he tried to rob Robin Ferschke of her Christmas.

Ferschke, of Maryville, is the mother of Sgt. Michael Ferschke, who sacrificed his life for his country in 2008 in Iraq.

Sgt. Fershke had married while in Iraq. Hotaru "Hota" Ferschke was already pregnant and living in Japan, so they had a proxy ceremony. Two months later, Fershke was killed.

The military recognizes proxy marriages, but a Cold War-era immigration law barred Hota Ferschke from obtaining residency status, even after Mikey was born. Aimed at preventing sham marriages, the law requires that couples consummate their marriage at some point after the ceremony. Obviously, because of Sgt. Ferschke's sacrifice, this couple could not.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Maryville and U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. of Knoxville, with an assist from U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, sought to change the law for people in the same circumstances as the Ferschkes (Duncan's account of the political machinations appears on page F3 of this section).

First, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions took on the role of the Grinch, but his heart swelled at the personal pleadings of Robin Ferschke. The Senate passed the measure, but when it got to the House, Sensenbrenner tried to snuff it out. His heart, apparently, was at least two sizes too small.

I don't know the size of the hearts inside Alexander or Duncan, but they did right by the Ferschkes. Alexander pushed the bill through the Senate, while Duncan figured out a way to get the bill around Sensenbrenner to a floor vote in the House.

It passed unanimously on a voice vote, so there's no way to know if Sensenbrenner's heart grew in size that day.

Unless President Barack Obama possesses a heart two sizes too small, he will sign the bill and Hota Ferschke will come to her new home in Maryville, Mikey in tow. Like Little Cindy Lou Who, Mikey will grow up spending his Christmases in a wonderful town.

So, as much as I am loath to admit it, there's hope.

Scott Barker is the editorial page editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6309 or