do even a halfway decent book on a subject as complex as the United States
government, you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. So the
first thing I decided, when I was getting ready to write this book, was
that it would not be even halfway decent.
I decided this because I'm not comfortable in Washington. Don't get me
wrong: Washington is a fine city, offering statues, buildings, and plenty
of culture in the form of Thai restaurants. But when I'm in Washington,
I always feel as though I'm the only person there who never ran for Student
Council. I started feeling this way back in 1967, when, as a college student,
I got a job in Washington as a summer intern at Congressional Quarterly,
a magazine that, as the name suggests, came out weekly.
I was totally unprepared for the Washington environment. I came from an
all-male-college environment, where a person's standing in the community
was judged on the basis of such factors as:
- Was he a good guy?
- Would he let you borrow his car?
- Would he still be your friend if your date threw up in his car?
But when I got to Washington I discovered that even among young people,
being a good guy was not the key thing: The key thing was your position
on the great Washington totem pole of status. Way up at the top of this
pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the
public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials,
journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, and other power players, holding thousands
of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle
nuances that only Washingtonians arecapable of grasping.
For example, Washingtonians know whether a person whose title is "Principal
Assistant Deputy Undersecretary" is more or less important than a person
whose title is "Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary," or
"Principal Deputy to Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Deputy to the
Deputy Secretary," or "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary," or
"Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary." (All of these
are real federal job titles.)
Everybody in Washington always seems to know exactly how much status
everybody else has. I don't know how they do it. Maybe they all get
together in some secret location and sniff one another's rear ends.
All I know is, back in my internship summer of 1967, when I went to
Washington parties, they were nothing like parties I'd become used to
I was used to parties where it was not unusual to cap off the evening
by drinking bourbon from a shoe, and not necessarily your own shoe.
Whereas the Washington parties were serious. Everybody made an obvious
effort to figure out where everybody else fit on the totem pole, and
then spent the rest of the evening sucking up to whoever was higher
up. I hated it. Of course, one reason for this was that nobody ever
sucked up to me, since interns rank almost as low as members of the
Today I have many good Washington friends, and I know that not everyone
who lives there is a status-obsessed, butt-kissing toad. But there are
still way too many people there who simply cannot get over how important
they are. And do you want to know why they think they're important?
Because they make policy!
To the rest of America, making policy is a form of institutional masturbation;
to Washingtonians, it is productive work. They love to make policy.
They have policy out the wazoo. They can come up with a policy on anything,
including the legal minimum size of the holes in Swiss cheese.
A good depiction of the Washington worldview, I think, is the hit TV
show The West Wing. Don't get me wrong: I think this show is well written,
well acted, fast-paced, and entertaining. But Lordy, those characters
are full of themselves, aren't they? They can't get over how important
they are. They're so important that they can't even sit down. They're
always striding briskly around the White House, striding striding striding,
making policy with every step. We never see the bathrooms, but I suspect
some of the characters stride while they pee.
Of course they rarely get a chance to go to the bathroom, because on
The West Wing, they're always having a crisis. Like, in one episode
I watched, the cast spent an hour hotly debating the question of whether
the president should chide some environmental group for not condemning
ecoterrorism. In other words, this issue was totally about wordsówhether
the president should say harsh words to a group because that group had
failed to say harsh words to another group. Nobody was talking about
But to the characters on The West Wing, this was a very big, very dramatic
deal. They were anguishing over it, while of course striding. Watching
them, you cannot help but get caught up in the drama: Should the president
chide? Or not chide? What would be the repercussions of the chiding?
Should the president stride while chiding?
You forget that, outside of Washington, the vast majority of regular
American taxpaying citizens truly do not care about things like this.
The chiding issue is exactly the kind of hot-air, point-scoring, inside-politics
nonevent that matters to Washington and four people at The New York
Times, but that regular taxpaying Americans instinctively recognize
as irrelevant to their lives. The reason you forget this is that regular
taxpaying citizens are never depicted on shows like The West Wing. Presumably
they're off doing some boring, nondramatic, non-policy-related thing,
Anyway, my point is that, even though this book is largely about the
federal government, I spent very little time doing research in Washington,
or for that matter anywhere else. I mainly sat around and made stuff
up. So if you were concerned about encountering a lot of actual information
in this book, relax! There's almost none. To compensate for the lack
of facts, I have included a great many snide remarks.
That is not to say that this book is useless. On the contrary, I believe
you will find that, of all the books ever written about the United States
government and political system, this book contains, by far, the largest
number of illustrations involving zucchini. And maybe oh just maybe
somewhere in this book you'll find some tidbit that will actually inform
you, and help you to be a better citizen!
If you do, please let me know, so I can eliminate that tidbit from the
© 2002 Dave Barry
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