Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ninety Four: Part Twelve: Wherein I Run After The Vice President, And Become No One.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part twelve; click here for the table of contents.

I've been looking back at this little project and the thing that jumps out at me is how little can remember about Washington, D.C., and how unsure I am of the memories that I do have.

I wish that I'd kept the red notebook, the notebook that I kept my journal in, the one that I wrote in pretty much every single day from January through about October of 1994. I can remember, perfectly, the day I threw it out. I was going through some boxes of stuff that Sweetie and I had put into the garage of the apartment we first rented when we got married. The apartment was pretty small, and most of the space we had was occupied by hand-me-down furniture and the three older kids, plus the hamsters that I'd bought them for Christmas one year. So a bunch of stuff was kept in the garage that we'd rented as part of the apartment, the garage that we never really used to store the car in, because the garage was like 200 yards away from the entrance to our apartment, so it was inconvenient.

In the garage were my comic books, and some old short stories I'd written, and my journal from the year of traveling around, as well as some other junk, and I'd decided one day to clean some of that stuff out en route to getting something or other out of the garage. I don't recall what I was getting out, but I do recall that I came across two things that day. The first was a collection of short stories I'd written, and the second was my journal from Washington D.C. and Morocco.

I looked at both of them, and I recall, perfectly, looking at the red notebook and thinking I've got pictures, I'll never need this again. So I tossed it in the dumpster on the way in, took the short stories, and never looked back.

Until now, when I wish I could have the day-to-day thoughts that I had back then, the ups-and-downs, the things I observed and noted and thought that I no can no longer recall noting or observing or thinking.

Some of the things I did during that year jump right out at me. I can recall, for example, the day that Rip and I spent walking around on the Mall, going down by the fish market and getting some free samples of a soda and seeing the Capitol, having our picture taken for posterity by some passerby or other. I recall it, in part, because we were sitting on a bench on the National Mall and wondering what to do next, that being a rare day when I'd hung out with friends rather than by myself, and as we sat there on the bench we saw a group of people coming, at a jogging pace, up the Mall towards us. There were men on bikes, men in suits, men jogging, all looking very serious and clustered together and watching everyone around us, and in the midst of all those men moving along briskly and looking seriously, there was a guy and a woman.

The guy was then-Vice-President Al Gore. The woman, I believe, was one of his daughters.

I didn't realize it was Al Gore right away; Rip did. "That's Al Gore," he said. It's maybe my memory that Rip said it with a bit of distaste; he was a pretty conservative Republican guy. Rip just looked, but I did not. I hopped up to my feet and jogged after Al Gore, and I yelled "Mr. Vice President!" Al Gore looked in my direction and waved a hand, and I snapped a picture, and he jogged on and I trailed off before I got captured by the Secret Service or something.

I remember that day perfectly, because how often does Al Gore just go running by you, regardless of where you live? Not often -- not even in Washington D.C., where he lived. In the four months or so that I was there, he was the most famous person I happened across, and I didn't exactly interact with him.

Other famous people were not so easy to interact with or find. True, I did ride an elevator with Senator Bob Packwood, who at the time was carrying a little bit of notoriety with him for a sad sexual harassment allegation (or maybe it was proven; I don't remember.) I recognized him from news reports when he got on the elevator.

I was on that elevator because I was on my way to an actual lobbyists dinner. I was extremely excited about that dinner, because (I imagined) it meant I was moving up in importance in the world. From a guy who'd lived in the slums in Milwaukee and shopped at a discount grocers, I'd become a guy who could have lunch with the son of the former Shah of Iran, to, now, having dinner and drinks with lobbyists, people who would be having dinner and drinks while they tried to get Representatives, or even Senators, to do things.

There were going to be important people in that room, and I was going to be one of them. Kind of. I at least was invited, which meant I got to go to one of the office buildings where the congress people work, and I got to go there after hours.

That was one of the surprising things I'd learned about Washington when I first got there and began looking around: the legislators don't have their offices in the Capitol. While I'd never given it much thought before, I was still a little put out to realize that. It seemed to me like they should have their offices in the Capitol -- they should work where they vote and vote where they work, have offices with large doors made of heavy oak with brass hinges that would swing open slowly and majestically, giving glimpses into offices filled with large, outdated desks and red carpeting that seems like it would be fancy until you get in there and walk on it and realize that no, it's not fancy, it's really old and threadbare, and one of the desks should be standing atop a small patch of carpet that had been masking-taped down, but the shabbiness of the details can be ignored because the office is in the Capitol, it's in the same building where Jefferson and Washington and ... um... Henry Cabot Lodge? I don't know. I'm not a history major. The same building, let's say, where Daniel Webster dueled someone, the building where president after president had given a State of the Union...

... and eventually it comes around to Presidents, because who really remembers legislators for long? I'm a political science major, and I can probably name only a few legislators, ever, in U.S. History.

Discounting people currently in the news and people from my own state, I can name:

Ted Kennedy.
Tip O'Neill.
Bob Packwood. (I'll count him because I can, after all, name him.)
Bob Smith -- the guy Rip worked for.
John Clay. That's a name I think I just made up, but it sounds like a Senator, doesn't it? Senator John Clay, from Louisiana, introduced in 1834 a bill to fund the National Bank. If I told you that (as I just did) you'd have no reason to doubt it.
On that note, I'll also add: That one guy from Louisiana, I think his name was Breaux.
And John Kerry, and Bob Kerrey, from Nebraska. I remember the former because he ran for President, and the latter because he did, too -- and he dated Debra Winger.

Learning that the Senators and Representatives, those bastions of democracy that I'd been learning about all my life, those guys (and occasionally women) who were elected for two year terms, or first appointed by state legislatures, then directly elected, who filibustered and who had to start ever taxation bill in the House, who were prohibited from making any law respecting the free exercise of religion, who could not pass Bills of Attainder (whatever those are), learning that those men (and sometimes women) did not actually work in the House of Representatives was a letdown.

Actually meeting them was even more of a letdown. I met Herb Kohl, the then-and-still Senator from Wisconsin, while I was in Washington D.C., and I thought these things, in order: He's short. He looks confused. He doesn't look rich. I didn't hang around. I met a few representatives and they were no more impressive than bankers back home. Maybe less impressive because most of what they did and said seemed fake.

And, as it turns out, most of what they do and say is fake -- they make speeches to empty galleries, so that the speeches can be shown on the news back home. They are allowed to "insert" things into the correctional record, so that the terrible speeches they give look better on paper than they did on the floor of the empty House of Representatives -- not that anyone actually reads the Congressional Record. But it's there, a record of everything that's ever been hoped to be said on the floor of Congress. Not everything that was actually said, but everything the congresspeople and Senators wished they'd said. The Congressional Record is, essentially, at least part fiction, and not even entertaining fiction at that.

One thing that's really amazing about politicians these days, one thing I began learning back in Washington, is how small and fake and, frankly, bad at things they are. As a political science major, as someone who'd paid attention to the great leaders and institutions, as someone who back then still was being aimed at the presidency by his parents (who would miss in that aim, just as they'd miss med school, too, ending up in the outer circle of respectability at trial lawyer), I always had a healthy respect for politicians. Until I met them. Then I had a healthy... whatever the opposite of respect is.

People look at Barack Obama these days and say that he's really eloquent. He's not -- not by the standards of political eloquence that have been set in America. I watched some of Obama's speeches and was struck by how mundane they were. Y es, he's a good speaker, but political speech these days is a lot of nuts and bolts and how-to's and things: It's short on inspiration and long on details. A grocery list is almost as inspiring as a presidential address.

That's just a sign of the times, though: People don't want politicians saying stuff like "Nothing to fear but fear itself," or "A thousand points of light." If FDR had to come on the radio today after Pearl Harbor and gave his same speech, talk radio hosts and newscasters would rip into him for his lack of specifics, and people would immediately distrust him.

But those political speeches, even the mundane, humdrum, not-so-great ones, that are given by presidents on big occasions, are heads and shoulders, leaps and bounds, above the speeches and talks given by run-of-the-mill representatives and middle-of-the-pack Senators. When we watch the news, we see a 10-second (if that) snippet of the local guy or gal, or a similar-length clip from a national star, a Hillary or Feinstein or Obama.

What we don't see is 15 minutes of the junior Senator from Kansas fumbling through a speech on how the proposed 4% cut in school lunches is going to affect the school districts in Kansas by forcing them to raise property taxes, putting x number of people out of work at the nearby prison. Complete with bar graphs, and complete with 13,000 ums and hmms and yeah wells. I saw a few of those because I watched as much of Congress as I could take, and that awfulness, that inability to speak, to project, to gather thoughts, was amazing, and appalling. These are the people we pick to run our government?

Think about it, though: Have you ever seen your personal representative give a speech? Not a television commercial. A speech. Have you ever heard him or her talk other than in a commercial, or maybe on a brief interview? I bet you haven't. And you never will, because your personal representative is a terrible speaker. He or she may be a perfectly adequate organizer or business owner -- two skills that help one get elected, and getting elected is the one thing that helps one stay elected -- and it's a certain bet that he or she, in person, is very charming and likeable -- but he or she is a terrible, terrible speaker.

That's why we don't remember legislators and do remember presidents: There are 535 legislators at any given moment, and only one president -- and all of those legislators at one point (plus governors and state legislators) are thinking about becoming president, but only one of them at a time can, and only once every four years, so the competition to become president is fierce, and most of them don't make the cut. Most of them aren't personable enough, aren't good enough organizers, aren't good enough speakers, to make a credible run for president. Just as most people will never quarterback a pro football team, most people will never have a chance to become president, and we notice and remember the ones that do reach that pinnacle... because they were slightly better at their job than the other 535+ people they worked with.

Meeting legislators in person only emphasized that quality, that ordinariness, that huckster quality that I began to feel, living in Washington. Like I said, I'd always elevated legislators and government people, as the bearers of the torch that our Founding Fathers had lit, as the people responsible for keeping my constitutional protections in place. These were the men and women who would not pass ex post facto laws -- men and women in my imagination who were worthy of the honor of being involved in government.

Only, when I met them, they weren't. They didn't work in the Capitol -- they worked in bland offices across the street from the Capitol and used underground tunnels to go vote on bills and make speeches to empty rooms and mill around aimlessly while others talked. They couldn't speak to save their lives, and the ones I met were, indeed, personable, but personable the way the loan officer at the bank is personable: friendly, but wanting to get this paperwork done and move on to the next. When you shake the hand of most congressmen or Senators, that's the feeling they give off: Hi-I'm-glad-to-meet-you-now-on-to-the-next-appointment.

And they stood sadly in the elevator with an intern on his way to a lobbyist dinner, an intern who was excited to be going to that lobbyist dinner because he'd only been in Washington about a month and wasn't yet deflated and jaded by experience. I was, as I rode that elevator up to the dinner, still a couple of months away from running after Al Gore to take a picture, still a couple of months away from being shown around Antonin Scalia's office, and still months away from thinking not much of this is the way I pictured it.

But it began that night, as I rode the elevator up and it stopped to let Senator Bob Packwood on. I recognized him, as I said, and wondered what, if anything, I should say. What does one say to a disgraced, embarrassed Senator one does not know but whom one is alone on an elevator with? (Oh, the questions I could, but don't, write to advice columnists!)

I settled for nodding, and facing forward to try to keep my excitement going and also because I thought it would be rude to ask if he was, in fact, Senator Packwood, because I didn't know him, didn't have business with him, and I thought it would be apparent that I was only asking because I knew about his troubles. So I said nothing and looked at the numbers lighting up, and Senator Packwood as the elevator began to move, edged to his right, nearer the wall of the elevator, a wall I recall as having brown paneling, but it maybe didn't -- that's how I picture all elevators, as being brown-paneled. That's how unreliable memory is: I even picture the elevator at my office, where I've worked for 10 years, where I worked today, as having brown paneling, even though I'm pretty sure it doesn't.

I can't, as I sit here at home on a Tuesday night, tell you what the actual interior of the elevator in my office looks like. All I can picture in my mind if brown paneling, even though I'm 100% positive that's not what my office elevator looks like.

(Then again, I never ride the office elevator, because (a) I try to get at least a little exercise by using the stairs, and (b) I don't trust it: it jammed once and a paralegal got caught in it for an hour, and I would go insane if I was trapped on an elevator.)

Brown paneling or not, though, I can recall Senator Bob Packwood moving to his right, a little, and sagging, a little: He slumped, just a bit. He put his head down a little, and he sighed. He leaned into the wall a little, and sighed again.

Then the elevator opened and I was off to the lobbyists dinner, which was filled with lobbyists, and a couple of representatives, and a lot of interns, this being a more-or-less open event that Mike, the fellow intern who'd told me about this, had told a lot of people about. We all wanted free food and wanted to rub elbows with important people like lobbyists and congressmen and congresswomen, so we all went, and we mostly rubbed elbows with each other. It was like being at the dorm, only with fancier food and more alcohol.

I didn't talk to any of the congresspeople there. I could tell who they were because they had groups of lobbyists around them and the groups of lobbyists had groups of interns around them. Since I didn't recognize any of the congresspeople, I made no real effort to talk to them.

I did talk to a lobbyist, though, who came up and introduced himself to me. I introduced myself back and said "How'd you come to be here?"

He said "I work for the group throwing the party." I asked what group it was, and he gave me the name, which I don't remember. I asked what they did, and it had something to do with water conservation or water cleanliness. Water, for certain, was of importance to the group.

My not knowing what we were there for must have tipped him off to something, because he said "Who are you with?"

To which I said: "Oh, I came here by myself." (Clever, right? I wasn't trying to be.)

He said: "No, I mean, who do you work for?"

"Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services," I said.

"Who's that?" he asked.

I gave him a quick rundown, as much as I could. He asked if they were there on the Hill. I think he was hoping for one last gasp of relevance. I said "No, they're over in Virginia."

He walked away. Just like that. Just walked away.

In retrospect, I think that was the second time my significance in the world of Washington D.C. was pointed out to me. That one was direct -- I got that. His abruptly walking away was clear even to me: You're not important enough to talk to. I'm surprised he didn't take my beer away.

But the first putdown, of sorts, I think, came in the elevator with Senator Packwood. When he'd looked sad, when he'd leaned and sighed and let his guard down and I'd seen it all, I'd thought: Man, he must be having a terrible time of it, if it's so bad he can't keep up appearances here.

But looking back, I'm not sure that's what was going on: It might have been that he could keep appearances up -- but having found himself on the elevator with just me, he didn't bother to try to do that. I was someone who could be walked away from, someone who it wouldn't matter if he saw a Senator slouching.

I suppose that should bother me, and if I'd realized it then, it might have. It bothered me that Lobbyist Guy walked away from me, so abruptly. It didn't bother me too much, because, after all, there was free food and drink and the possibility that I'd meet someone famous any moment, but it bothered me a bit.

But it doesn't bother me now. Being insignificant back then doesn't bother me now, and why should it? Who I was back then isn't who I am now.

But even if I am insigificant now, it still doesn't bother me.

There's a line in a song by Bright Eyes. The song is At The Bottom Of Everything, and it's a terrible but great song about a woman who's on a plane that's crashing. The song tells the beginning of the story and then becomes a song that's being sung to the woman as the plane crashes. The theme of the song is that people have to live their lives to the fullest, that they must talk in every telephone... rip out all the epilogues from the books that we have read... and more like that. It's, as I said, a great and terrible song.

The end of the song has the lines:

"I'm happy just because/I found out I am really no one."

Everytime I hear that line, I get goose bumps. I've spent a lot of time in my life preparing to be someone of importance. Being told I could be President. A doctor. At least a different kind of lawyer. My parents told me I was a genius, and I believed them. I believed them and I went to Washington with the expectation that I was going to take it by storm, was going to meet famous people and have life-changing experiences and put myself on a path that at the very least was simliar to the arc of a storyline that Bill Clinton had -- meeting a president and then becoming one.

Things didn't work out that way. I didn't shake the president's hand. But I did run after the Vice President and take his picture. And I rode an elevator with a slumping Senator who didn't care if I saw him slump.

There's something to be said for learning to put the world in perspective. There's something to be said for the long, slow process of unyoking ourselves from the expectations that have been placed on us, told to us, instilled in us.

I think that's why I so blithely threw away that red notebook, that day, years ago. The person who went to Washington D.C. thought those things that he saw and noted were important. The person who came back thought they were things that could be put into a garage for years. The person who went to Washington had, like Pip, Great Expectations. The person who came back had... well, me. Eventually, the process that began when I got on that train to Washington wound me to where I am today: Not trying to live my life to become something, to prove something, to to do something... but just trying to live my life.

Beginning in Washington, I stopped trying to be someone and began being no one -- no one but me. And I'm happy just because of that.

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