Friday, April 27, 2007

Chart boy

Several years ago, in a corridor of the Russell Senate Office Building , a fellow drone in a suit hustled by, lugging a 3-foot by 5-foot cardboard chart with a graph entitled “Foreign Sources of U.S. Oil Consumption, by Region.” Staring at the guy, sweat pouring off his face, tie askew, hair matted, I thought,`Man, that chart boy could be me someday.'
Since I’m an historian by nature because it was the easiest major in college, I pride myself on spotting major transforming historical trends, and hence I’ve always thought the dividing line between Old Washington and New Washington is not the ferocious lobbyist culture, extreme partisanship, slicked back hair or pastel ties. It’s more sublime.
My view of Old Washington is elegantly crafted speeches, written with fountain pens, copied on a dinosaur mimeograph machine, given by stately men in grey flannel suits, white shirts and muted ties. In their hands they grasped rolled up papers and flailed around a podium while a shock of grey hair fell over their foreheads. Think Clarence Darrow railing on about monkeys.
Across time and space we had the Agriculture and Industrial Revolutions and now today we have the Presentation Revolution. The subtle shift began with the reign of King Newt in 1994 who was poised to rule the world. Presentations, not speeches, became the rage. With presentations came The Chart.
Politicians, decision makers, and academic windbags now eschewed elegant speeches and instead stood up and pointed to these marvelously colorful charts that would explain everything — from the production of steel paperclips in Wishtokee County to the rise of non-defense non-discretionary spending during the McKinley era. Charts seemed to encapsulate everything about this town and about politics. Who can argue with a chart? Everywhere, overnight, you’d see legions of hacks following in the wakes of politicians who were going to make a presentation about paperclips, or the federal budget, or oil or chart production. Grab an easel, put up a gaudy chart and the argument was half won.
A Luddite, I was also a fortunate son as I avoided carrying these bulky charts. Sure, there were folders and manila envelopes to cart around for superiors. I once carried a dozen hard hats, like the ones on construction sites, looking like a carnival hawker in my outstretched arms at a highway event. As a State Department flunky, I carried bouquets of flowers, cheesy Uncle Sam paperweights and goat carvings throughout Whereverstan.
As time passed, I was entrusted with cell phones when my bosses were going on TV or about to speak to a huge group. Today, I am even entrusted to hold Blackberrys.
But the Day of the Chart was looming. It had to arrive. This week, it did. I was in my customary functionary mode, going to the Treasury Department for a news conference on the looming fiscal catastrophe. My office put together a chart displaying something, I don’t know what. “Is this showing future expenditures for the third floor coffee club if we switch to decaf and real cream?” I joked to the chart’s designer, who had an abacus and slide rule stapled to his belt. He adjusted his glasses and stared at me.
So we go into Treasury and I’m not holding the chart — a more senior guy is because he actually understands what’s on it. I’m just holding a manila folder entitled “Important Stuff.”
Yet I feel the chart is stalking me. The guy in charge of it is obviously uneasy holding it. As I said, more senior than me, to his credit he has a sense of chart responsibility. He’s got the dang thing practically pasted to his side as we walk a half-mile of corridors, following our escorts to a holding room before the event. Then he leans it up against a wall — I sit as far away from it as possible, like it’s a voodoo doll. People come and go and try to chat with me but I’m numb with apprehension.
We do the event. Some functionary with the department takes the chart and puts it on an easel in the briefing room and then takes it down after the event and puts it back in the room. The senior guy dutifully picks it up and we leave. But wait, he’s gotta follow my boss into a special meeting and everyone knows you can’t take a chart into a special meeting. So he hands it to me and scurries off.
There I finally am, standing in an ornate, marble floored hallway, underneath a monster portrait of Albert Gallatin, third Treasury Secretary of the United States , holding the chart. Standing beneath Old Washington, I now carried the baggage of New Washington. The bio next to the painting says Albert was from Scotland and a successful grain merchant before Jefferson picked him to lead the fledgling department. “Don't even say a word about this chart, Big Al,"” I say to his gaunt face staring at me.
We soon leave the building and go out into the sun and breeze on Pennsylvania Avenue and I have that accursed chart. Walking down the steps of Treasury, the White House visible next door, I reflect on my public policy career as the chart bangs against my leg. A gust of wind catches it and my wrist twirls as the chart flips all the way up and around and over my shoulder. My hair tangled, tie flapping, my face contorted and now a chart bouncing lightly on my head. It was inevitable. I had finally become what I always feared — Chart Boy.

Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times
Copyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.


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