Washington: Oh, Grow Up
"Ladies and gentlemen, I present the head of George Bush." Thus spake soon-to-be-former Heritage Foundation Program Director Betsy Hart to an audience of 100 young conservatives in Washington the night after the election. Ed Hudgins, another staffer, then brought in a silver platter holding a stuffed latex mask, splattered with stage blood, of the president. Hudgins paraded the "death mask" in front of the crowd for a couple of minutes. Laughter—along with some mutters and grumbles—buzzed around the room. And then the scheduled panel discussion on how young conservatives can revitalize their movement began.
Fox News and The Washington Times reported the severed head incident. Gossip zipped through the city for two days. Hart told the Times that the head was "a gag," merely something that came "out of the audience." If so, she must have thought it was a real hoot: She paraded the severed head around the Heritage lobby after the forum. Heritage President Ed Feulner quickly apologized to President Bush and fired Hart. (Hudgins quit.) The substance of the forum—the reason those young conservatives came to Heritage that night—was forgotten.
When I was in high school, my buddies and I would occasionally moon people. In a fit of pique, we once took one obnoxious fellow and ran him up the flagpole. (The student body president was in on this with us. Small towns in western North Carolina are tougher than you think.) But I'm not in high school anymore, and neither are the Heritage folks who put George Bush's head on a platter.
Welcome to the nation's capital. Before I moved here in January, I often viewed D.C. as a company town whose only industry didn't produce anything. After getting wired into the local scene, I've changed my tune: Washington more closely resembles a college town where nobody really has to graduate.
If you think I overstate Washington's chronic case of adolescence, consider:
• A common Washington type is a bright, well-educated, 30-something male who works for $20,000 a year as the deputy press secretary for some backbencher in Congress. Why? "So he can scam on 20-year-old interns," a congressional reporter says.
• A friend who moved to Washington was amazed because "you never really have to buy food. Just find a reception or a good happy hour. They're all over town."
• Washingtonians can toss back a cold one—or a pitcher—with the best of them. Remember when Jimmy Carter tried to crack down on business tax deductions by going after the "three-martini lunch"? It turned out that the only place anyone had a three-martini lunch was on K Street. In such places as Atlanta and Chicago, genuine business people said, "People drink at lunchtime? Three martinis?"
And if three belts at midday sound impressive, imagine what Washingtonians slosh down after work. When I played softball Tuesday nights with a group of former college newspaper editors this summer, our postgame team chant was, "Let's go drink!" The team would then proceed to a tavern, not for a couple of beers (we had those during the game), but to close the place down. As the team's elder statesman, I only joined the festivities a few times. After all, I had to go to work the next day.
• The Beltway has its own fraternity: public-policy experts. But it's often hard to distinguish the person with actual expertise from the junior wonk with a fancy title. One friend of mine went to work for a think tank, analyzing economic policies in a number of faraway lands. He is a sharp fellow: intelligent, conscientious, and a quick learner. But he had spent his brief career studying U.S. policy exclusively. No problem. At a reception soon after my friend started his new job, one of his senior colleagues introduced him as "this town's leading expert" on economic policies in those faraway lands. (Some of these policy fraternities are more than metaphorical. They have names, like "The Third Generation" and "The Smart Set," and hold regular meetings.)
• A painfully funny article on D.C. social life in last November's Washingtonian notes that many Hill Rats may as well have stayed in school. One woman tells author Lisa DePaulo that Capitol Hill staffers "have all the amenities they had back in school. A cafeteria to eat lunch in with their buddies every day, a barber, dry cleaner, post office. And lots of those guys—even the 30- and 40-year-olds—still live in group houses!…That's okay when you're really 22 or 23, but these guys stay at 22 or 23."
Only recently has Washington become a mecca for Toys-R-Us Kids with college diplomas. The first Reagan term attracted a small cadre of young conservatives who took over the White House policy apparatus. Fresh out of elite schools, full of enthusiasm and conservative ideology, these "minicons" (so named by Andrew Sullivan in a November 1990 Esquire column) could conquer the Reagan idea mills because they had little competition from their elders.
By the second Reagan term, Washington had become a glamorous place for conservatives and libertarians to live. An entire intellectual infrastructure had relocated here. The Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies moved here from the West Coast. Irving Kristol moved his neoconservative publications from New York City. The American Spectator came east from Bloomington, Indiana. National Review beefed up its Washington office.
Heritage, the Leadership Institute, the Institute for Educational Affairs (now the Madison Center for Educational Affairs), the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a host of other organizations started their own intern programs, which soon sucked even more young people inside the Beltway. During the first Reagan term, Human Events columnist M. Stanton Evans founded the National Journalism Center to train minicons as reporters. Evans says, "Young conservatives thought the way to be a part of conservative activity was to come to Washington and get a job"—any job. Whether they meant to or not, by placing an extensive job network in Washington, older conservatives had created a field of dreams—"If you build it, they will come"—for young activists.
Washington was getting younger. And it was also beginning to attract people who wanted to be something rather than those who wanted to do something. Consider journalism. A surprising number of conservative college-aged interns believe that, as long as they wrote an occasional op-ed for their campus newspapers, they can come to Washington, open the mail in a newsroom for three months, and automatically be qualified to become the next Charles Krauthammer or George Will. "Syndicated columnist" seems to be the politically correct career goal for minicon journalists.
This trend disturbs Evans, whose National Journalism Center sponsors more than 100 internships at print and broadcast outlets in D.C. each year. "We tell young people to get out of here," he says. "If you wanted to become a famous actor, you wouldn't hang around outside a movie studio or stay backstage at a theater and paint scenery. You'd [work] in regional theater and learn your craft. Don't expect to become a successful journalist by sitting in Washington, gathering crumbs from the table."
The same criticism applies to the Beltway's "instant experts," who rely heavily on polemical arguments that have not been subjected to the rigors of academic research. Possessing a spiffy title does not confer omniscience. And while petty political struggles certainly take place inside the academy, the nature of the scholarly process—which first seeks the truth—discourages the mean-spirited tone pervading Washington policy discussions.
Living in a college town does have benefits. (I should know. I lived in the Chapel Hill area for 10 years after graduating from the University of North Carolina.) Social and professional life revolve around the campus, so it's easy to make friends and find other people who share your interests. College towns are also intellectually stimulating. The prevailing culture values ideas, encouraging you to learn as much as possible.
But most people eventually graduate. For many young conservatives and libertarians here, Commencement Day is January 20. With a Democrat in the White House, think tanks and consulting firms will pare some deadwood and lay off some junior analysts to make room for the more talented or famous Bush employees. Lesser-known Republicans may have to leave town.
If these folks want to do more than hang out at happy hours and circulate their résumés, there are plenty of challenges for them outside the Beltway. Governors and legislators across the country are struggling with school choice, welfare reform, and a host of market-oriented policies.
Free-marketeers shouldn't be afraid to start their own businesses—even in nonpolitical fields. Running an inn gave George McGovern a new appreciation of the hassles and costs of government regulation; think what entrepreneurship could do for already-skeptical young policy wonks. In addition, existing companies need public-relations people who can represent capitalists because they believe in capitalism. And the job market for entry-level journalists—real reporters, not pontificators—is picking up.
Those courageous enough to venture outside the Beltway should prepare for some culture shock: Once you graduate, the meal plan expires. Be ready to buy your own food.
Rick Henderson is Washington editor of REASON (until angry minicons read this and put out a contract on him).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Washington: Oh, Grow Up".