Capital Cynics

Who do they think they're fooling?


Washingtonians are down in the dumps. It was bad enough when the rest of the country just didn't like them: At least the anger of 1994 produced the New Republican Congress and the resultant buzz. Washington was the place to be, a city of high drama whose denizens got zillion-dollar book advances and mingled with fashion models in the pages of George. Its think tanks became rich, its pundits famous.

No more. "There's not much élan of any kind, old or new, in Washington today," says New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple, borrowing a phrase from the recent French election. "We don't have a lot of ideas at the moment." People in the rest of the country have stopped paying attention. They care more about JonBenet Ramsey, Tiger Woods, and Bill Gates. Interviewing Apple, PBS's Charlie Rose frets that maybe Gates has "more influence than most senators or cabinet secretaries in this nation's capital."

"The year of the great disconnect" is what Wall Street Journal writer Gerald Seib calls it. Turnout in last year's elections was a mere 49 percent, the lowest since 1924. Polls show Americans don't know who Trent Lott is–why should they?–and politicos report record non-attendance at town meetings.

And while it's bad enough to be ignored by the riff-raff outside the Beltway, now Washington has been betrayed by one of its own. Susan Molinari, the perky Republican congresswoman from Staten Island, is quitting her job to become an anchor on a new CBS weekend show. A second-generation pol, she was mediagenic enough to become a "rising star" in the GOP–not a person of accomplishment or ideas but, in Apple's words, "someone who was well spoken of." She was great at reciting the GOP's spin of the day.

Her resignation stung. "Now, it seems, politics has become just another route to becoming sufficiently famous to land a high-paying TV job," gripes Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz.

And why shouldn't it? The Lethal Center that dominates Clinton's Washington is dedicated to little more than the manipulation of media images: The nation's capital has become the perfect happy-talk training ground for future anchorpeople.

With typical self-absorption, the gloomy Washingtonians are missing the story. Yes, the rest of the country is ignoring them. But it's more than that. A new attitude toward Washington is brewing. It isn't the get-out-of-my-face anger of 1994 or the Perotista throw-the-bums-out anger of 1992. It has less ideological content or political edge, and probably fewer immediate electoral consequences. On good days, it's expressed in resigned cynicism–the attitude that dominates American pop culture and ordinary conversation on those rare occasions that it turns toward the Beltway. On bad days, it asks, with revulsion, Would you please shut up?

Why exactly does Newt Gingrich feel compelled to opine that TV networks should show more antidrug public service announcements? Why must Bill Clinton weigh in on "heroin chic" (months after it became passé)? Why must the entire political/media establishment lecture parents to talk to their babies? Why must the president–after months of "reconciliation" meetings with rhetoric advisers–anoint himself "healer of the breach" in race relations? Why must there be bipartisan chin-pulling about whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer is adequately labeled for violent content? Why does every crime, natural disaster, scientific advance, or human tragedy require a political spin? Why must a flurry of congressional press releases greet every subject that ever arises in any corner of American life? Why do these guys have to be the center of attention every second of every day?

The point isn't that this posturing necessarily has coercive consequences, though often it does. It's that Washington's relentless camera hogging, story manufacturing, and sound biting is cynical and patronizing. Like coaches or movie studios, most Washingtonians copy whatever succeeds. Clinton won the White House twice. Now his insincere, manipulative style has become the modus operandi in most of Washington. And the "permanent campaign" has turned into a hunt for celebrity that puts Hollywood to shame. (Out here, at least they're literally selling the images they create, and they aren't confusing–or pretending to confuse–them with reality.) By treating Americans as blithering idiots, Washington's endless spinning poisons everything it touches. We are too media-savvy to be so easily fooled. The pulpit is no longer bully. It is simply a podium from which to dish out bull.

Consider the "volunteerism" summit in May. Most of the activities it promoted are admirable. In particular, people who make the sustained, years-long commitment to serve as mentors to poor or troubled kids deserve praise. Such efforts combine empathy and practicality, both worthy traits, and the nation is full of kids who desperately need a window on a wider world. As Amy Sherman notes elsewhere in this issue, concerted volunteer efforts are also vital to the difficult task of moving lifelong welfare recipients to work. (See "Thy Neighbor's Keeper," page 43.)

But the summit was a fiasco, "spin as news," a cynical debasement of the work of millions of volunteers–all designed to get the cameras on the me-me-me of Washington politicians and talking heads. The semi-sincere ones were touting mandatory "volunteerism," usually via graduation requirements for high school students.

But mostly they were touting themselves. Any event that attracts a bunch of former presidents, the current White House honcho, and Colin Powell (not to mention John Travolta, Brooke Shields, and the always self-aggrandizing Arianna Huffington) is decidedly not about the anonymous good-doers who tutor children and paint over graffiti. It's a photo op, "just for show" as a Philadelphia ghetto resident put it. The cynicism that greeted the summit from reporters and many conservative commentators was not the "desiccated" selfishness or "intellectual confusion" Huffington found a useful foil. Like the yawn emitted by middle America, it was an appropriate response to a phony P.R. stunt.

Indeed, the work itself was all but irrelevant, as Hanna Rosin damningly reported in The New Republic: "Many [volunteers] have come from far out west on red eye flights, and have been standing in the sun since the 6 a.m. sign-up. But it is almost noon, and they have yet to lift a paintbrush. They have seen Clinton trade his crutches for a paint roller, Colin Powell trade his button-down for a T-shirt, Al Gore don a tool belt, Hillary Clinton put on white weeding gloves. They have heard a half-dozen speeches. But, with only three hours left of clean-up time, they haven't done any actual work. `I'm afraid the paint will curdle,' says a frustrated Chris Thomas, a volunteer from Iowa."

By several accounts, when they finally got to work the volunteers did a lousy job: dropping globs of paint on sidewalks, obliterating store signs, and leaving patches of graffiti showing through. Every weekend, unsung Americans do better work without benefit of politicians or TV cameras. They start first thing in the morning and listen to no speeches. They shut up and do the job.

This is true not only of "volunteerism" but of raising children and running businesses, of teaching and learning, building and creating–of all the activities that make life more than mere existence. Outside the cynical circles of Washington, people do these things for their own sake, not to fabricate pretty images of themselves. Sure, everybody likes to be praised, and we all prefer to look our best. But most of us would rather be praised for something real, to be acknowledged for genuine accomplishments. We don't believe that "appearance is reality," the spinmeisters' motto, and we resent people who assume that we'll fall for their flackery.

Or we just ignore them. "I'm a tough person to ask about politics. I'm sort of apolitical," says a Silicon Valley entrepreneur I recently interviewed for Forbes ASAP. People in the Valley, he continues, don't bother fooling with political structure: "We can change the world. If we don't like the way it is, why worry about modifying the structure? We'll just create a new world–create a workaround or a bug fix that co-opts them completely."

On good days, I think such optimists are right. True, the nation's capital still has enormous power to do harm, often through esoteric regulations only specialists can comprehend. (For a good example, see Michael Fumento's "Polluted Science," page 28.) But that power is limited, and getting more so. Hence the march of micro-issues, each more trivial than the last.

The good news, then, is that Washington-the-annoying is the natural result of Washington-the-ignored–and Washington-the-irrelevant. A lot of people, not just Bill Gates, are more influential than senators, cabinet secretaries, and all those other camera-seeking self-promoters. Now if we could just get the cynics in D.C. to shut up.