March 28th, 2006 12:58 EST
Nine Washington eye-openers for newly arrived journalists
Someday, some of you journalism students will find yourselves in Washington, DC, where you will be in for some surprises:
• Women run the government, but men blow hard and take credit for it.
• The civil service works well, in spite of cheap attacks by politicians vested in persuading constituents that the government is bloated and corrupt.
• The federal government has the finest, most dedicated civil service in the world, thanks mostly to millions of women who get no credit for it.
• The government works in spite of the witless efforts of administration after administration to reorganize what would be better left alone.
• Washington is a grandiose and boring town. There are plenty of small towns and cities a lot more interesting.
• Alcohol plays a big role in lawmaking. If you don’t believe it, check out all those sirloin faces and purple noses on Capitol Hill. It ain’t all rosacea. Keep that in mind the next time you hear about the war on drugs, because they’re not talking about their drug of choice.
• It doesn’t matter what anybody says, because the real story is sitting in a file cabinet somewhere. Washington is a paper mill. So when you get there you have to decide whether you’re going to chase faces or whether you’re going to chase stories. And let’s hope you’re blessed with editors and corporate bosses who care about the difference. But that’s not a given.
• The plain fact is Peoria and Utica and Providence and Nashville and Petaluma are all more interesting towns than Washington for the simple reason that real people live there. Nobody really lives in Washington except two classes of people: the poor who are hidden and the bureaucrats who are maligned and bullied by jerks. Unfortunately, they’re the jerks you’ve sent to Washington because you believed them when they said things were so bad there.
• Washington doesn’t have real neighborhoods, like nearby Baltimore.
It has enclaves and cliques. It has spheres of influence. It has corner tables and knock-out martinis. It’s very hard to live a normal life there because of the hot air factor. It’s stifling, even without the Potomac’s infamous weather inversions.
The fact that millions of bright women devote their lives to making our federal government work is a story beneath the dignity of the press lords. The fact that these women’s puffed up political bosses take the credit for everything that goes right and blame them for everything goes wrong also goes largely unreported.
When Jimmy Carter came to Washington with his breathtakingly provincial crew, vowing to straighten out the bureaucracy and make it fly right he was just doing what politicians before and after him did: running against the best, most efficient bureaucracy in the world, trying to make it look bad so he could look good. He got his headlines, but the real story was and is just how well the government works in spite of the beeves and their bright young things. No, not the legislative branch.
By and large it is the problem. But the executive branch—all the departments, agencies, commissions, bureaus, units, etc—works well in spite of the best efforts of their political bosses to corrupt and derail them. Al Gore, when he was vice president, had a pet project. He called it reinventing the government.
It went on and on, upsetting and demoralizing. What a bore. What the government most needed was to be left alone so that it could run properly without interference from political gas bags. One good-humored bureaucrat during the Gore years hung a sign outside his office saying, This agency will be reorganized until morale improves. The joke of course was that everyone knows morale is in the toilet when political appointees who think they have to reorganize everything fiddle at the taxpayers’ expense.
Oh yeah, those reorganizations cost big bucks. Unfortunately, they’re the rule, not the exception. The exception is that rare person who comes in and says, Just carry on and let me observe and figure things out—if I can improve something I will. That’s good management. You won’t find much of it, except at the career civil service level. But once you autopsy the political stiffs you’ll see abuse, pomposity and stupidity, and sometimes just plain good intentions gone awry. The end result is that the public outside the Beltway is misled about the federal government. The public thinks it needs to send people to Washington to straighten out the fat cats. What it ends up doing is sending more fat cats to Washington.
There’s a great story, but have you ever read it? The federal government works. When did you ever hear a politician tell you so? They want you to believe it’s a mess so you can send them to Washington to eat your lunch. You can reorganize anything, even an Aston Martin, but that doesn’t mean it will run any better. Most of the bureaucrats actually know what they’re doing, and if they don’t, their secretaries do. So when the politicians start blathering about government inefficiency just remember how inefficient they’ve made it by reorganizing it to death.
Can you imagine trying to do your job when every two or four years some nitwit abolishes your office, moves you around, changes the names of everything, and then gets himself and his boss defeated in the next election, leaving you in a godawful, dejected mess? Well, that’s Washington for you. The requisite to getting elected to office in Washington is having a tin ear. My door will always be open to you, the politician tells you. Yeah, and bring money. And don’t expect the politician to get a hearing aid when he gets to Washington.
There are thousands of bureaucrats, good, honest civil servants, who could educate him on your behalf, in your best interests, but don’t count on him listening. He has his own ideas, and most of them are a lot worse than yours. Now, when you get to Washington, you’re not going to be able to cover this story. You’ll have to leave it to the pundits, so keep it in your tickler file. Then, when you become a pundit, a genuine talking fathead, you can cover the story. But if you keep it mind, it will help you cover the Bureau of Mines, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and all those other obscure agencies with alphabet-soup names where smart, dedicated people are being pushed around by political hacks.
You may develop sources among these long-suffering folks, if they catch on to the fact you understand their misery. Just as political parties have polarized in recent years, there is polarization between the politicos and the civil service that does their bidding, and ultimately our bidding. Bad-mouthing the people you depend on to carry out your policies is bad policy, but politicians have found it so useful in getting themselves elected that they often can’t resist it. In so doing they’ve created a durable myth that ill serves us, and when real incompetence arises, such as we’ve recently seen in the Department of Homeland Security, it only hypes the impression that our good civil service is bad.
Not all politicians are that self-serving, and not all civil servants are spotless do-gooders. Some civil servants find it expedient to polish political apples, to tell their appointive overlords what they want to hear. But not wanting to hear anything that doesn’t pander to your own opinions is not the exclusive domain of the Bush Administration, however much it has abused the privilege. There’s really only one remedy for this stubborn virus: You.
You, as a journalist, must keep this dynamic in mind and not let ambitious politicians hornswoggle the voters by demonizing the civil service. How you manage it will test your savvy. But if you ever have any doubt about the importance of your task, just remember the run-up to the Iraq war. Enough good intelligence was generated by faithful civil servants and by Arabists in the private sector to at very least cast doubts on the wisdom of going to war, but the President and his men didn’t want to hear it. Some civil servants had the grit to stand up and be counted. They were punished. Some pandered to their political bosses, and they were rewarded.
Remember this disgrace the next time you hear a politician bad-mouthing all those men and women who go to work every day with dogged commitment to serve you honestly. And, as always, remember that nothing is ever black and white, no matter how hard one side or the other tries to convince you it is. That’s your trial as a reporter, not to succumb to simplemindedness.
Every day, men and women work on statistics, studies, plans, accounts, account reviews, grants and assistance programs of all manner, and every day politicos try to bend the statistics, corrupt the reports and misinterpret the data for ideological purposes. Once in a while, this hidden conflict breaks into the news, but usually it goes on behind the scenes, demoralizing and intimidating government employees and making the people’s business that much harder to do. It’s a tough story to report. Whistle blowers are few and far between, and they’re not celebrated at back-slapping $100-a-plate dinners.
About Washington being as bore, that’s not quite true. It has some of the world’s greatest museums, and it’s a visually beautiful city, especially if, like the politicians who run it, you manage to ignore its horrific slums. The tour buses have that in common with the politicians; they both detour the obvious. The real reason this city, built on a malarial swamp in order to strike a compromise between mutually wary Yankees and Southerners, is a bore is because politics is its grand obsession.
The town simply doesn’t get that the rest of the country has a life. Once you realize you’re working in a one-subject town you begin to notice one of the other horrors that attend such single-mindedness, namely the bad odor that comes from unbridled ambition.
In Washington, there is always the danger that the next suit you buy will be the one you disgrace yourself in. People are always sizing each other up for a fall. In Manhattan, you can overhear conversations about a good show at The Met, but in Washington a good show is supposed to nudge the polls one way or another.
When you get to Washington, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re at the top of the heap. It’s just a different kind of journalism, and you are unlikely to do even a decent job if you haven’t learned how to cover a small town or city. The places from which you come don’t exist for Washington, in spite of how the politicians behave, Washington exists for them. They are the real stories of the nation.
If you know how a small town or county or city works, you can do what Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin envisioned for you. But if you think Washington is the be-all and end-all, you will quickly become part of the problem. The next time you hear a politician tell you the government is bloated, corrupt and inefficient, think of all those purple noses up there on The Hill, think about all those women at various civil service levels making their self-important bosses look good, and think about all those agencies and bureaus that are working perfectly well in spite of the silly reorganizations and all the efforts to corrupt them by poisoning them with partisan politics.