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The Washington Pressure Cooker: If You Can't Take It, It's Time to Go

4 years ago
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A Sunday New York Times profile on David Axelrod, perhaps President Obama's closest aide, contains this paragraph:
In an interview in his office, Mr. Axelrod was often defiant, saying he did not give a "flying" expletive "about what the peanut gallery thinks" and did not live for the approval of "the political community." He denounced the "rampant lack of responsibility" of people in Washington who refuse to solve problems, and cited the difficulty of trying to communicate through what he calls "the dirty filter" of a city suffused with the "every day is an Election Day sort of mentality."
There are several things worth saying in response. The first is that David Axelrod is speaking the language of a person who appears to be burning up and burning out. We read later in the story that Axelrod's friends "worry about the toll of his job." They have reason to be concerned. Axelrod comes across as exceedingly -- and for a person who has worked in the White House for only a little more than a year -- unusually defensive and prickly. There is even a touch of a martyr complex: Obama and his team -- right, wise, and pure of motive -- are being dragged down by political Lilliputians, people of ill will who are driven not by a different interpretation of what is in the public interest but by base political considerations.

Axelrod wouldn't be the first White House aide to fall victim to a siege mentality. It's an ever-present temptation. When I worked in the White House people asked me what it was like to live in the "bubble." I told them it was more akin to living in a bull's-eye. You are the subject of constant criticism by the opposition party and the press. People who are free of the responsibilities of governing, including allies, are eager to explain how things could have been done better, how decisions could have been made more wisely, and (especially) how the White House could correct its "communication problems" and how it needs to regain control of the "narrative."

Such things can become wearing. Senior White House aides generally have more access to more information than their critics. From the inside, it's easy to begin to think you know better than the critics do. Outsiders have the luxury of being arm-chair critics -- most of them have never served in high public office, and many of them have never served in any governing capacity. So there is a temptation for insiders to reject criticisms as simple-minded and often as small-minded.

Sometimes that's a fair appraisal of things. But often it's not and, in any event, developing an "us against the world" mentality is harmful. It can create seething anger and distort one's judgment. It is an individual of impressive character who is immune to such things, who retains a sense of perspective and detachment.

If Axelrod's attitude is indicative of the White House's cast of mind -- and my guess is that it is, based on what one hears from other top Obama aides, like Robert Gibbs and even the president himself -- then it will lead to much more trouble down the road. Resentments and grievances, when combined with the enormous power inherent in the White House, can be an explosive combination.

There is one other thing to say about Axelrod excusing failures by belittling Washington, or "this town," as President Obama and his top aides periodically refer to it (usually when things aren't going their way). Our nation's capital has its problems, like any city devoted to politics. But I long ago grew tired of those who would surrender their first child in order to work in Washington disparaging the city and its denizens. People whose professional lives consist of working in and commenting on politics -- and who would leave D.C. only at the point of gun, if then -- often speak of Washington as if it were irredeemably corrupt, devoid of any admirable qualities. They pretend their job requires enormous sacrifices of them instead of admitting that working here can be an adrenaline rush and appeal to one's ego and outsized ambitions. They refer to the "Beltway mentality" as if it is an alien mindset, distant and removed from "the real America."

This is mostly nonsense. Washington's inhabitants are often interesting and engaging, cosmopolitan and international, which is one of the reasons why so many people want to live in the D.C. area. I am in plenty of contact with people who live far away from Washington -- and my experience is that they tend to be just as partisan as those who work in Washington and generally a bit less informed on issues of public policy (which makes complete sense, since their livelihoods aren't devoted to politics). Their wisdom is no greater than people who work in D.C. (listen to a C-SPAN call-in show if you don't believe me). In fact, often the representatives we send to the nation's capital reflect the views of their constituents with the precision of a seismograph, sometimes to a degree that is unhealthy for our politics.

"If you want a friend in Washington," Harry Truman supposedly said, "get a dog." That's a guaranteed laugh line used by politicians giving speeches outside the nation's capital. But Truman never said it, and wouldn't have: He had a lot of friends in the nation's capital. And he's not the only one. I've lived in Washington since the 1980s -- and I've made wonderful, lifelong friendships with people whose character is as fine as you will find anywhere in America. They include liberals and conservatives, lawyers and lobbyists, reporters and columnists, people who work in administrations and on Capitol Hill. Many other people in Washington have a similar experience. It's a side of the city that is almost never told. It should be.

I am fully aware of the drawbacks of Washington; a city like this draws people who are unusually ambitious and can be too consumed by the gamesmanship of politics, which can have a corrosive effect on the human spirit. But Washington is also home to our governing institutions. And for all of the drawbacks of politics, it remains a noble profession, a means by which we debate and decide on issues of justice and the right ordering of human society.

I can understand why Washington isn't for everyone. I'm less tolerant, however, toward those who work themselves into exhaustion in order to find a special place in Washington, and who work themselves into further exhaustion in order to retain that special place, and who then mock the political culture they long to be a part of and to which they contribute.

Truth be told, it is an honor to play a role in shaping American politics, especially through governing, and especially through service in the White House. If out of disgust or disillusionment people want to return to Chicago or wherever else they came from, then they should do so, the sooner the better. What they shouldn't do is to pretend to be repelled by what they have been captivated by.

"I have in my lifetime passed from an era of peace through various unsettled stages into a world which, in Sir Thomas More's phrase, is 'ruffled and fallen into a wilderness,' " John Buchan wrote in "Pilgrim's Way" (reported to be one of President Kennedy's favorite books). "But I retain enough of the disengagement of the earlier world to refuse to surrender my right to cheerfulness. I was brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy, and I have never learned the art of discontent. . . . It seems to me that those who loudly proclaim their disenchantment with life have never been really enchanted by it. Their complaints about the low levels they dwell in ring hollow, for they have not known the uplands."

I hope in time David Axelrod and his colleagues become familiar with the uplands.

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