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What Washington Is Really Like

I love the anecdotes streaming forth from Matt Latimer's tell-all about the Bush administration. And I love the counter-anecdotes angrily administered by Latimer's former boss. But what does annoy me is Latimer's refrain that this is really the tale of a wide-eyed Midwestern Everyman being slowly ground down beneath the jackboot of the Beltway. "I wanted to give people a glimpse of Washington from someone who came from the middle of the country," he said this morning on MSNBC's Morning Meeting. "I wanted people to see what Washington is really like."

Washington is a big place. If you hang around cynics and frauds, that says something about the company you keep and the cohort you've chosen. It doesn't say much about Washington. The folks at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, for instance, keep a firm grasp on their souls. Some Hill offices have long since veered into careerism, but many are filled with exhausted staffers who are trying -- and maybe failing -- to make the world a better place, and doing so for a lot less than they could make in the private sector. As an example, I've spent the whole day posting comments from experts who spend all day studying delivery system reform and trying to explain their findings to the political system. They don't do it because it's glamorous or enriching. It's not being a presidential speechwriter or penning a dishy book. But it's important.

Latimer's experience, obviously, is his own, and not for me to question. But it's not a reflection of what "Washington is really like." It's about what Senator Jon Kyl's office was really like, and what Spencer Abraham, and Donald Rumsfeld, and the Bush administration were really like. You can argue that it's about what the modern Republican Party is like. But Washington? That's a more complicated place.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 22, 2009; 3:17 PM ET
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I agree. My limited experience in Washington has allowed me to meet all sorts of people who are very serious about what they do and about the consequences of what they do. These are people with beliefs that run the spectrum, and by and large they do what they do well. I've also met people who would happily grind down any Midwestern rube they could find, and call it "learning the ropes." These people too often do what they do with great effectiveness.

Posted by: bdballard | September 22, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

this is a beautiful and deeply important post.
in the frenzy of constant heat, it is easy to overlook the fixed light.
there is so much untempered rhetoric, cynicism, impatience and disregard for the truth, that it is easy to forget all of the hardworking, heartworking and humanistic people who work in washington, dc ....and everywhere else.

and thank you for the excellent guest contributors today, and their analysis.
today's work is an immense contribution.

Posted by: jkaren | September 22, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I don't eat veal and I never buy these books.

What concerns me is that people are getting paid $50 million to blow the whistle on their former employers in the pharmaceutical industry. In many cases these same people were key players in the alleged crimes. I think this system of bounty-hunter justice has gotten out of hand.

Posted by: bmull | September 22, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I can second this post. When I worked on the hill many years ago, the Senator and staff I was associated with were in the main hard-working, dedicated people. It's always frustrated me how bad a reputation public service gets in the press.

Posted by: valeskoi | September 22, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you Ezra. I'm retired now, but my career included years in D.C. in career civil service in the Exec. branch, lobbyist for non-profit org., and staffer in Congress. Sure, during all that time, I encountered incompetence, some rascals, and some who were only self-serving, and whose ethics were bad. But the vast majority--in the agencies, in the non-profit sector, and in Congress--were good people with high ethics and whose motivation was public service to improve our democracy and our Nation's policies. And the competent, dedicated ones all could have made more money by working in the private sector; they chose not to because they were dedicated to service in the public interest.

Posted by: zippyzeph | September 22, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

*all could have made more money by working in the private sector; they chose not to because they were dedicated to service in the public interest.*

Let's not overstate the altruism of those public sector workers. A lot of them sacrifice the money because the jobs they have in the public sector are much more interesting than the higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

If Latimer's book is supposed to depict what DC is "really like" from the perspective of a young professional working on the Hill, it needs to include passages about hanging around at happy hours with a bunch of half-bright, loudmouthed hill staffers, living in a crowded group house or cramped basement apartment, and partying with a bunch of European World Bank employees.

Posted by: constans | September 22, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

What I want to know is: how accurate is The West Wing in its depiction of Washington?

I missed this series when it first aired. I didn't have a DVR at the time (and had given up on VCRs) and simply didn't watch network TV in those days. Anyway, I'm in the middle of season II now via Netflix, and I'm simply entranced. In a way, I think it's more enjoyable watching this saga of a noble Democratic administration during a time when a Democrat actually is in the White House than it must have been when Bush was in office (though I think Season I and maybe II aired while Clinton was still in office).

Posted by: Jasper99 | September 22, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

"What Washington Is Really Like" depends on what you mean by "Washington." Latimer seems to mean the Federal government and adjuncts, and Ezra's post and the comments follow the lead. Which is fine, but there's also Washington the city, and in my (admittedly limited) experience Washington the city is not all that different from any other city, in the Midwest or elsewhere. It does have one unique problem, which is that Federal Washington controls Washington the city, but Federal Washington generally seems to wish that Washington the city could just go away.

Posted by: kcc3 | September 22, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this. I'm sick of people painting DC as full of people conspiring to screw the rest of the country. Of course, there are the power-seeking idiots (my experience is they are the ones wearing the Ralph Lauren Polo shirts with the oversized logo and popped collars), but they are a minority. While people differ in their ideas for policy solutions, most have good intentions.

Posted by: janspa | September 22, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

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