At the time of this writing, all eyes here are on Capitol Hill, where Elena Kagan is sitting through her third day of hearings, and congressional negotiators are hard at work in the aftermath of the death of Robert Byrd, the 92-year-old Democratic senator from West Virginia.
People around town are parsing Kagan’s words. An entire cohort of folks are counting up votes to see if financial reform is dead or alive as a result of the passing of Sen. Byrd. Passions rise and fall, as if it’s a World Series or a World Cup match.
Washington is a company town—and the company is the government that runs our entire country and dominates the world stage.
This domination of the political conversation and the high level of buzz never fail to surprise me when I come for a visit from Santa Cruz—3,000 very long miles away.
It’s not that Santa Cruzans—or Californians— don’t care about who’s running our country and how they’re doing it. But Santa Cruzans are distant from the hot seat. Here in D.C, you watch the hearings on television—but you are also liable to bump into one of those staffers that you saw at the hearing. And chances are great that they’re discussing the ins and outs of what happened. It’s exciting to get the real inside stuff—what really motivates a Barney Frank or maybe how disappointing some some senator really is.
Maybe it’s the most surprising thing about politics in Washington: government here isn’t much different from government anywhere. It’s just like local news—except with major national and international impact.
CIA Director Leon Panetta—formerly our friendly local congressman—used to invite school kids into his Capitol office and remind them that all these decisions are just made by ordinary people—people that aren’t that different from mom and dad. The lesson was an important one — kids, you too can be part of national public service when you grow up.
Still, I’m always struck by the big difference between the dialogue in Washington and the dialogue back home. The best example of that came in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Talk to someone in California, and they’ll think of the Twin Towers in New York and maybe recall what they were doing the day of the attacks. In Washington, where the Pentagon was attacked, parents to this day actually have written plans about where their kids are and how they’ll meet up in the event of an attack. The threat is that real.
This town’s hyper-attention on national and international matters is exciting, true, but there’s also a down side. It’s often referred to as that “inside the Beltway” mentality, and that description is not complimentary. You get the feeling that while everyone is fixated on this hearing or that sub-committee, the rest of country isn’t even part of the dialogue.
So the question becomes, how could you invite in the rest of the country and how could you broaden the horizon of the inside-the-Beltway folks.
Many years ago, local daily newspapers had Washington bureaus or they hired freelance writers to cover local issues as they played out in D.C. Unfortunately, the economics of newspapers meant that those local bureaus have been cut. Yes, there was a day when newspapers in Santa Cruz or San Luis Obispo or Eureka had access to reporters that covered matters of intense local interest and how they played out in Washington.
Elected officials have noticed the impact of reduced local coverage. U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, the Carmel Democrat whose district includes much of Santa Cruz County, has spoken of his frustration that people in his district really aren’t sure about what he’s up to. Yes, Farr and others send out newsletters, but even they don’t think that their own publicity pieces fill his constituents’ information needs.
It’s an irony that in this time of instant communication there’s such an information gap between Washington and the rest of the country. Maybe someone will figure out a way to bring the doings of the federal government even out to those of us who live 3,000 miles away.
It’s also tourist season in Washington. The hordes of visitors crowding in to the Smithsonian museums and the Capitol and the various sites along the Mall can make getting around more difficult—and irritating, of course, in the heat of mid-summer.
Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see so many folks engaging in the story of our country as presented here. No matter how many times I see them, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the understated Vietnam Memorial all quicken my pulse a bit. It’s like Panetta used to tell the schoolkids—American history was made here; the legacy of those who have led our country over the past 234 years is alive and on display. I defy anyone—resident or visitor—not to feel something good when all of a sudden the Capitol dome comes into view. It’s the ultimate antidote for cynicism.