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TSUNAMI IN THE FISHBOWL

A House staffer hesitantly returns to his office after a 9-hole lunch break. (Lunch has a tendency to move "off-campus" when the boss is out of town.) As he excuses the intern who had so graciously manned the front desk in his absence, the phone's red message indicator captures his attention. First message: A woman in the District wants White House tickets for her 7th grade drama class. Second message: The Congressional Research Service (CRS) will deliver the requested articles by COB. Third message: "Son, this is Dad. Your mother is quite concerned over a Vanity Fair article she heard about at garden club today. Please call us when you get a chance."

Tsunami

The puzzled staffer dials home to hear a compassionate, yet concerned voice on the other end. Having just read the upcoming 7-page exposé on Capitol Hill, she nervously utters, "Honey? This isn't the same Liam Lynch and Mike Donohue who you live with…is it?" "Well actually, Mom, it is." But, you see, Liam and Mike, like the majority of the other named and unnamed "victims" of this story, are people whom you would never anticipate having to defend to your own mother. Like most us "paying our dues" on Capitol Hill, they are intelligent, decent young individuals who came to Washington to learn the process, beef up their resumes, lead their country, and contribute - in one way or another - to the betterment of society. While the order in which they recite them may vary, these are common themes among the hardworking, underpaid, and yes, still somewhat idealistic young people running our country.

How can I claim to know the unwilling contributors to this piece on such an intimate level? Because they are my friends. In fact, one is a former neighbor, one is a former boyfriend, another happens to live with me, and still another is gracious enough to let me do my laundry at his house during Meet the Press (When I make it big, I'm going to have my very own washer and dryer. I don't care if it's flashy).

Don't get me wrong. I don't live in a "La La Land" where Tom Daschle and Trent Lott are like the Coke and Pepsi man, skipping down the street holding hands and grabbing beers together after a particularly contentious mark-up. I, too, was disheartened to learn early on that most of the letters your sweet Nana sends to Washington are never actually seen by her Representative. I also remember the first time I saw the "auto-pen." I tried not to show my naiveté, though inside I felt as if I'd just learned the Tooth Fairy didn't exist. Hey, Vanity Fair. You caught us. We "Washington insiders" are as horrible as you've heard. I just have one question for the author: How many outstanding "Thank You" or other notes do you have on your mental To Do list? 3? 4? 5? Don't feel bad. I know, there just "aren't enough hours in the day." But the fact that a Member of Congress doesn't actually read and write personal replies to 1,328 letters a week is downright appalling, isn't it?

Since when did life become one big episode of [Tom Brokaw's] "The Fleecing of America"? If one befriended an "insider" at the local Starbucks, they would likely uncover that some of the 16-year old employees have secretly poured you decaf (versus starting a new pot of leaded) on those occasions you've snuck in at 5 'til closing - while a car full of impatient friends waited in the parking lot. And there are probably a few Burger King employees who, gasp, have smoked cigarettes in the bathroom on their lunch break. Does the media find the revelation of their industry secrets and minor infractions worthy of a 7-page glossy spread? Of course not. Why? Because we expect to see headlines when CEOs engage in disreputable conduct, but their employees, on the other hand, are not shaping the companies' global mission statements. They are merely trying to pay their rent and add a little "work history" to their resumes before landing more prestigious and better paying jobs.

Take off the bad uniform (although, in some cases, a uniform might actually be trendier - but that's another column), and voilá! You have the typical Hill staffer…barely paying the rent, adding "bullets" to the resume, and aspiring to be somewhere else. A Leadership office? The White House? DoD, maybe? And just as a Gap employee can vent over a couple beers with friends about a taxing day of folding mock turtlenecks, congressional employees should enjoy that same freedom…particularly in the privacy of their own homes. Members of Congress and other public figures know when they place that left hand on the King James that they have just relinquished all rights to a private life - even when they're in their tightie whities, even when they're in a bad mood, and even when they're enjoying a "private" dinner with friends. Staffers, on the other hand, play an anonymous role in the process and are not "public figures." The work invested by the 27-year old Legislative Aide who actually wrote Congressman Hugsalot's "genius" bill (which resulted in 20,000 new jobs in the Member's home District) will never make national headlines. Likewise, the details of his pool game at the Capitol Lounge - regardless of how many drinks he had or his inappropriate remark that he "has [defense contractor] Northrop Grumman by the balls" - should exist under the same veil of anonymity.

The only thing that has been uncovered in this exposé is a reminder that tabloid journalism and Congress mix about as well as oil and water. "Journalists" of [author] Vicky Ward's caliber don't understand Washington, don't know the system, and clearly don't have reputable sources within it. Why else would they prey on an untenured, morally casual receptionist who measures her influence by the number of business cards she can stuff into her Kate Spade clutch after a night at the bar? Because anybody who holds real power in this city would never accept such a reporter's call…not to mention provide full access to the most intimate details of their lives while selling out their unknowing friends.

I think it's time for Ward, who made her name writing for British tabloids, to stop playing dress-up with psuedo-journalism and stick to the coverage of feuding boy bands and Prince William's love life. In these especially difficult days, our legislators have enough on their plates. It is not in our national interest to divert their attention to a manufactured scandal, but Vicky Ward has created quite the distraction. Something tells me that is exactly what she had in mind.

As one of her former employees tells us, "…she's impervious, she's immune to human suffering, given how much she causes."
diana davis


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