Monday, September 17, 2007

20 Years, 7 Maxims

It's a measure of my dim mind that it took Peggy Noonan two sentences to explain what I couldn't articulate during 20 years. In a recent coluum, she quotedWilliam F. Buckley Jr. observing that "Politics is not an ennobling profession." To which Noonan added, " Which means you better be good going in because you're not going to get any better."

It was as nifty a sentiment as it was keen. Of course Noonan deals regularly with grand thoughts and big ideas and velvet prose. Not that case with this ole primitive, so pass the ketchup and Ding Dongs, please.

But Noonan's reflections were on on my mind as I noted my 20-year anniversary in Washington and tried to frame something thoughtful about my tenure here. I arrived in 1987 in a Volvo station wagon containing two suits, a blue blazer, and how quaint: a couple of books from college courses in which I derived a C and a distaste for anything Arthur Schlesinger. Contrary to the popular mythology of the birkenstock clad, crunchy, peace-nic Volvo owner, my bumper sticker said, "I brake for fascists."

I'd come here because after seven years in journalism as a young, dogmatic, narrow-minded writer for magazines from Surfing to Naitonaol Review, and newspapers from the weekly Cambrian to the San Diego Union, I'd reached my creativite limits as a writer, i.e. duller and getting duller. So I got a room in a boarding house on Capitol Hill and three weeks later was working for a Member. The rest is political hack history.

20 year later, my cruurent office is 200 yards from my first office in Rayburn House Office Building, symbolic of how far I've progressed as a person and as a professional.

Naturally, one would think that after living and working in the epicenter of democracy all this time, during periods of peace and war, prosperity and doubt, the huge transition from the fax machine to email, that Nellie might have some sweeping proclamations and insight about what he's seen. Sorry to disappoint folks, but I came here armed with a bunch of never-miss lines from"Caddyshack" and "Animcal House" and that's where I am today. Oh, I could give you the usual boilerplate: politics is a tough business, democracy works, people are essentially decent, Americans are a fortunate people. And as Otter says, don't start a land war in Asia. The fact is, the big thoughts and truly profound things have all been captured by the Noonans and Buckleys of the world, leaving scant gems for us drones.

So if I don't have any shouts from Mt Olympus, a I do have a few murmurs from the cubicle.

1. Carry three pens and a clipboard with pad at all times. No matter what meeting or corridor conference you are in, someone important will say, "I don't have anything to write with," or your boss will say, "Make sure you write that down." Guess what, pal -- got it covered.

2. Always have a spare Oxford button down shirt and rep tie in your ofifce. (Because one of the pens in your pocket might explode, oh yuk yuk.) Actually, it may be your boss who needs it.

3. Nod sharply with a set jaw and determined look on your face whenever your boss opens his or her mouth.

4. Listen to everyone, from the folks in the cafeteria to the security guards, to the insufferable staff, all of whom know more than you. The corollary to that is: Don't speak unless 1. you're asked for your opinion, and 2. You have thought long and hard about what you're going to say. This sounds both elementary and rigid. It is.

5. Don't panic. My basketball guru, John Wooden of UCLA, was fond of saying in his basketball camps for us junior high geeks,"Be quick, but don't hurry." Think things out. Don't react immediately to any situation, particularly if you are bent out of shape by someone or something. When Senator Orrin Hatch gets steamed up, he writes letters to the editor on whatever topic is outraging him and then puts them in his desk drawer. Forever. Even though part of my family is Mormon, I don't have that LDS steadfastness. I simly steam for a while like some funky machine in Starkbucks. But I don't act.

6. Raise your hand. When I was in the Army, it was an article of faith that you never volunteered for anything. I never bought into that because I figured I could learn from anything and that somehow, someway, it might come in handy down the line.

7. The Mom factor, or, tell the truth. This sounds so damn hanckneyed it makes even me sick. But when you're backed into a corner, or when you see an opening to elaborate, stick to the facts, no matter what sounds good, no matter what you're trying to ward off. One small truth-streching turns into an avalanche.

I learned the first three before I came here. I knew if I followed the last four, I'd at least survive here. That's why I thought Noonan's observation so keen. I was a good-natured, decent guy when I got into politics. 20 years later, I may not be better but I'm not worse. Which, as Carl says so eloquently in the 'Shack, "is nice."