17 June 2006

State of the Nation

Dispatches from an Ivory Tower

This broadcast coming to you live from George Washington University's Ivory Tower, an antiseptic motel of apartment-styled dorm rooms presiding regally over Foggy Bottom and, visible through the morning fog, the Watergate hotel, odd brutalist modern concrete slabs sticking out from its prow like a sinking cruise ship. We go there for groceries and outgoing mail and consequently it's a rare day I'm not reminded of illegal B&E and Nixon swearing at the Chinese.

Meanwhile, my internship continues apace at the Cato Institute, which is a public policy think tank, which is like an aquarium stocked with professors instead of carp. My department is Government Relations. At a libertarian institute that agitates for individual liberty, government restraint, free trade and peace, you can imagine how the two teams playing political rugby up on the Hill must love us; since my department largely consists of communicating with the rugby players, and since the message is mainly that they're fucking their citizens blind, we find ourselves in the socially awkward position of attending, say, Republican Fiscal Action Team meetings to cheer on budget restraint while shuffling our feat when the Values Action Team gets up to crow about sodomy.

Washington D.C. is an odd, howling monument strip of a city, a grass-and-marble jumble surrounded by an unacknowledged mass of criminalized poverty where abstract power sits atop a strict, uniform hierarchy that doesn't exist anywhere else in America. Other places, money might mean class - but here the top people are making peanuts. It's the title, the size of the entourage, the people you know, the pull, the handshakes. If you're an aide for a superstar - McCain, Clinton - you are God by any other name. The place is, as has been observed before, Los Angeles for ugly people, and it means that the city is run by old, greying men with red ties who import the young and the hungry. In the course of wandering the high marble halls of, say, the Dirksen Senate Office Building, in navy pinstripes with a briefcase full of policy papers, you learn dogma: the older and more southern the Senator, the younger, taller, and blonder his female interns. Get down to Bill Frist's door and none of his debutantes are over 24 or under 5'10".

In the course of my duties, I've brushed with an insane authorial hack demanding critique on the first 100 pages of a book whose plot consists of a professor at George Mason assassinating Congressmen until term limits get passed, and with a smirking U Penn asshole interning for Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, drunk on lime rickeys at 2 in the afternoon after a day of tearful back-slapping and congratulations over the death of liberalism; he was smoking cigarettes and wobbling in the sunlight. The office was being packed up, and greeting cards were being signed.

I've also met a former Cato guy who's a Senate staffer now. He's a disillusioned, bitterly sarcastic boiled egg of a man in rumpling button-down, losing his hair. "I just read the dumbest god-damned editorial in the National Review Online," he says, roughly fifteen seconds after meeting me. "Guy took DeLay's line and said that the Republicans had reduced the size of government because there are fewer federal employees now than there were five years ago." He rolls his eyes.

My boss, his face drooping in sympathy, nods. "Which is ridiculous - "

"Which is ridiculous exactly, because all they're doing is outsourcing. You're still spending just as much money, probably more - "

"Right - "

"It's the bottom goddamn line. Check expenditures, then tell me government's smaller." This is outside the Fiscal Action Team meeting room, which sounds like a superhero league, if superhero leagues came filled with Republican Congressional staffers and Heritage Foundation fellows thickening at the waist. Heritage hosted, and so they provided the Chick-Fil-A catered lunch, provided free of charge thanks to Chick-Fil-A's raving and wealthy Southern Baptist owner. The room was silent outside of the moist crunch and mash of reheated chicken breast and tiny fried chicken giblets, and the sucking fizz of soda. My boss had pulled me aside before coming in. "It gets a little awkward to be Cato in this room. Just sit in the back, take notes and ignore 90% of what you hear."

Later, down the hall, the former Cato staffer is regaling us: "Take my [senator]."

My boss: "He's good fiscally."

"He's marginalized, is what he is. You think he's listened to, around here? He votes 'no,' they mark it down, and the bill gets passed. I'm telling you, man, every U.S. citizen should spend a year working in government, just so they can see the shit that goes on here."

He lowers his voice while a tourist family wades through security, folds of dairy-fed Midwestern flab sagging over elastic, wrapped in cotton red-white-blue or lime green, visors and souvenir baseball caps, cameras and children on straps dangling from necks and wrists, staring slack-jawed at the oak doors and being bustled past by important young staffers in slender suiting. "Principled representatives rot alive in this place," he says, after a moment. "They don't have influence. Anyway, everybody wants something. You give it to them, you get another term."

Before he leaves, sounding resigned, he says, "The only way real, comprehensive change is going to come," and he sighs, "is armed revolution...or, shit, I don't know. Some cataclysmic event, tears apart the social fabric of the nation, collapses civilization. Remnants flee to an island somewhere and live free and peaceful, out from under the heel of government."

My boss shakes his hand. "Well," he says.

"Yeah," he says. "I've got a policy study to get on for the Senator. By next week, if the revolution doesn't come first."

1 comment:

Robert Lewis said...

I hope you become the change you'd like to see Jim, and that your good example persuades others.