I guess putting the word “politics” in the title of the blog entry, well that mean I’m going to talk about politics. Well, I am but not the here and now politics. I don’t really want to open that particular can of worms. Rather, I’m going to talk about being a fresh faced kid in big bad Washington DC. Nah I’m kidding. But I am going to talk about my time in DC, what I saw, who I met and what (if anything) I learned. Buckle up.
We have to start at the beginning, as good a place as any I guess. That I would live in Washington was almost a foregone conclusion. Growing up every night my dad would watch the McNeil Lehrer news hour. Every single evening. I mean it was with good reason. The family was far away in a place where a lot of political upheaval was happening and hey, its always good to know what’s going on. I was just a kid. I remember sitting in our living room in our old house in New York, playing with my Legos where people like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski held court on one topic or another.
But the real show was on Sunday. Every week we watched This Week with David Brinkley. The courtly, slyly witty David Brinkley, firebrand Sam Donaldson and the country squire firebrand George Will. What a combination. Brinkley would always have his funny asides at the end about postage stamps and hilariously named bills in Congress.
Needless to say I was fascinated by all of this. There was this spark and this fun in this world, but they also seemed really serious at the same time. I remember having conversations with the adults around me about one political thing or another. Never mind I was in ninth grade at the time.
Ninth grade is also pertinent to this story. It was when we went on our school trip to Washington DC. I remember our school trip pulling up to the White House. I sat there on the bus and said to myself — one day you’ll be in there. Same thing for the Capitol building. One day, you’ll be there. Little did I know how soon that would actually be.
You always hear about the science and math geeks in high school but I think not enough attention gets paid to the history and politics nerds, which is the herd I belonged to, although in my high school, that was a herd of one. Still the interest persisted into college, where I became a political science major.
Now, now you want to hear some straight shot story about someone studying political science, graduating with extreme and excessive honors and busting out, ready to take on the world. Well, that’s not the story here. Yeah, I graduated with some kind of latin distinction after my name but I really did not find political science that interesting, the deeper I got into it. When it came down to the nitty gritty of it, I wasn’t really that interested in campaign finance reform and things like that and the experience overall was uneven, to say the least.
The real story was that in my junior year, I did study abroad in Denmark. A lot of stuff happened during that semester, that I detail in another blog entry. Initially I thought I was going to go to law school but the semester in Denmark made me rethink those plans. My dad said to me — so, what now? By the end of that week, I had formulated that I was going to go do journalism. Looking back on it now, I don’t even know how this even worked out for me.
Around that time, I went to my academic advisor, a guy named Charlie Tarlton. He was a political science professor at my college but he had been some kind of hippie in California in the 1960s. In other words, he could understand this 21 year old that was a bit lost. I still remember our conversation though, a less auspicious beginning to anything you could not find. I went to Tarlton’s office wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The night before somebody had gotten attacked in the area next to my dorm. It woke up the entire dorm. I’m sitting there half asleep and Tarlton goes — so why are you here? I said — well, I’m eight credits short of graduation and I don’t want to study anymore. Tarleton sat back and said — we have this DC internship program you could do. Your GPA is ok. You should be able to get into the program.
I went to DC and did an internship at the Voice of America. This is twenty some odd years ago now, but still working at the Voice of America is one of my favorite work experiences. I showed up on my first day of work and people from the office were coming over to talk to me. One of them said that they had heard I was from Chicago and I said — no, I just lived there when I was a little kid. I was 21 at the time and the guy said to me — when you were a little kid?? I have TIES that are older than you. I don’t know but I just found this super funny. These people were straightforward and honest and that’s all you can really ask for. Working at VOA was my first brush with Washington and I saw it at it’s best. The people in the office had worked for some DC grandees but they didn’t seem too taken with themselves. I wrote crime alerts and editorials for worldwide broadcast which was such a thrill. I would sit at the desk everyday and look out at the Capitol Building. It never stopped being a thrill for me looking at it, corny as that might be.
My other internship was at this place called Connection Newspaper, which was a local Northern Virginia weekly that wrote about high school band concerts, football games and other kinds of local news. The guy I was assigned to sort of shadow handed me a folder of stories and said — these are my dogs. He didn’t mean canine. He meant stories he didn’t feel like writing, so I as the intern could have at them. I wrote a story about a guy and his butterfly collection and attended and wrote about the aforementioned high school band concert. By the end of it, I had six clips. I think. Six pieces of journalism with my name on them. I thought — journalism in DC. I mean that’s a real long shot.
A couple of months later, I was applying for jobs when I happened upon this place called Tax Analysts. I’ll never forget what happened the day they called me for my interview. It was the end of the summer, three months of job hunting, no offers yet and I get a phone call from Tax Analysts. I had a cell phone then, an actual phone not some glowing rectangular electronic Swiss army knife like we have now, but a phone phone. I called the number back to book the day I would go for my interview. It was raining. I’m standing on Pennsylvania Avenue and a car goes by. Every single person on the street has stopped. The window rolls down and it’s Bill Clinton waving at everyone and smiling. Everyone waved back. It was odd because at that moment, I thought — you are going to be OK. You are going to be OK. A job will come and you will be fine. Bill Clinton, and I’m sure you frequently read this blog, thanks for the reassurance.
All the other jobs I applied for had been in DC but this one was in Falls Church, Virginia. I walked into this job and thought — I will work here. I was interviewed by this slightly intimidating older editor and the staff, including a guy wearing a t-shirt with a basketball on it. More on him a bit later. I was to be formatting a magazine and there would be reporting opportunities. I thought — hopefully not really soon because I was still kinda learning journalism.
By then I had moved to Capitol Hill and soon, there were reporting opportunities. Soon there were many reporting opportunities. Soon there were many many many reporting opportunities. I mean there were a lot but I was also very willing to take them and I lived a couple of blocks from the Capitol so it was easy enough to get there. The guy in the t-shirt with the basketball on it, my best friend of the past 20 years, Herman Ayayo, told me that I got the reporting opportunities because I lived in the neighborhood. LOL.
There I was finally at the politics show. Heady stuff for a person who had just six years earlier walked across a stage to get their high school diploma. There I was seeing people I had read about in books and seen on the news. It all had this surreal quality to it.
There were so many moments that were just unbelievable. I remember seeing Ted Kennedy a few times. He was the lion of the senate by that point but all I thought was — my mother, who grew up in another country saw your brother get killed live on television and here I am standing in front of you. There was the time I was standing next to Tom Daschle when he was talking to the press and I was on the news that night. Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana, yelled at me. I mean he didn’t yell at me but he got smug and an attitude with me when I asked a question. Jerold Nadler pointed at me at a hearing once and said — nobody from the press is here. Kevin Hassett, an advisor to George 43 at the time, said — Paul Krugman always gets his tax wrong and you can quote me on that in Tax Notes.
I went to the White House a couple of times for work. The first time I went was in 2001, for the signing of the Bush tax cut. Going to the White House, no matter who you are, how old you are or how jaded you are takes your breath away. It just does. I remember going there and feeling like was walking around in the back of the twenty dollar bill. Yet more surreal was at another event I went to with the prime minister of Spain at the time, where 43 tried some Spanish on Jose Maria Aznar and Aznar was having none of it. That day, the Spanish press were giggling and taking pictures of themselves on the presidential limousines. Oh and smoking everywhere. After the big meeting, there was a press conference at a very fancy hotel across the street from the White House. The Spanish contingent crossed the street and they’re smoking in the lobby of the hotel. I’m thinking the hotel personnel is going to lose their minds but on it all went. Oh and I went home that night and you could see the back of my head on C-Span at the White House.
It wasn’t until much later that I thought — I was in the White House inside of nine years since being on the school trip with the high school, just as I had predicted. I didn’t realize how remarkable that is until very recently.
A couple of things struck me about all of this. Washington, inside the beltway, operates on a completely different set of rules than the rest of the world. Sometimes, a lot of the time it felt like a lot of smoke and mirrors but there was real work being done under the smoke and mirrors. But also at the same time, you could see how human they all were. Human beings made all of this government policy, imperfect as it may be. I remember sitting in the House press gallery, waiting for some briefing to start and Dick Armey, the House Majority leader at the time, walks in. He was this really tall tanned Texan, who could have been a movie actor playing a politician, except he was a real politician. There was a bit of time before the press briefing began and Armey started this stand up comedy routine. I could not believe how funny he was and even more, I could not believe I was laughing this hard at jokes told by a guy whose politics I so vehemently opposed. A lot of them were funny and very charismatic. The fact that their political beliefs weren’t aligned with yours didn’t really matter.
That was the thing that struck me the most. When it came right down to it, when dealing with a crisis, they did actually work together to mitigate the crisis. This is what great politicians do. Teddy Roosevelt is considered a great American president who created our national parks. Franklin Delano Roosevelt rescued America from the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan, along with many others, worked to end the Cold War. How many people remember that two were Republicans and one was a Democrat? The great ones transcend party.
I still have an abiding love for the Capitol building. Now when I see it on TV, I remember all the times crossing through Statuary hall or the rotunda to get to some hearing and thinking — I was here when I was 15. Now I’m rushing to get to a work thing. Even now I see people reporting from there and I still remember standing at the same spots in the Capitol. The affection for the building has never left me.
Well, anyway, enough talking. Did I mention I used to bring my mini camera with me to all of these meetings? No. Well, I brought my tiny little sneaky Russian camera along to all of my meetings. I had to. I never knew what I would see. So here are shots of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Jeff Flake, Dennis Hastert, TV actor Bradley Whitford, a shot when I was definitely the only woman there, shots of a couple of the policy forums I attended and some other stuff. Enjoy what I saw at the politics show: