Sunday, May 15, 2011

Six Years in DC: Seven Things I Have Learned

For more than two centuries Washington, DC has left footprints across the globe. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, then, that living here during the past six years has changed my life too, if not my core identity.

I came here from Minnesota in early June 2005, not exactly of my own choice but not exactly reluctantly, either. I was a "trailing spouse," aka The Wife (and 2 Kids) who relocated to suburban DC for the Husband's job....a mere two years after we'd left Boston for St. Paul, for the same reason. In the late spring of 2005, when we alighted at Washington's Reagan National Airport -- while our household goods traveled overland in a big Graebel Moving Company truck -- I also was a veteran Journalist.

I recognized the career advantage of relocating to DC from the Upper Midwest, where I had lived -- and shivered and fretted over my withering work prospects -- for two years with my (now former) husband and our two children.

In St. Paul, I had appreciated the low "friction factor" of life in the Twin Cities -- few traffic jams, affordable real estate, good public schools, low crime rates -- not to mention the calm sensibility of the Lutherans and Methodists who are the Establishment in those parts. I wasn't totally enthralled with the idea of living in the Mid-Atlantic but I was pragmatic enough to understand that nearby DC might be a good place to re-enter the workforce fulltime, following a long child-rearing break.

Yes, well.

Timing may not be everything but it does matter.

The news business had began to contract in earnest in 2006, with national and regional news organizations shedding jobs by the thousands. By 2007 in Washington, DC, two outlets where I received semi-regular work starting in the fall of 2005 —NPR and The Washington Post—began eliminating hundreds of jobs.

That development coincided with the end of my 11 year-long marriage. And just when I sought to re-enter the industry where I had worked for 15 years before stepping out in the late 1990s, the once-reliable stream of jobs slowed to a trickle, then dried up altogether by early 2008. At least it did for me.

On to what I have learned in DC.

1) DC Provides...With Conditions

Given what I've recounted above, I am very fortunate to have "landed on my feet," at least financially. Psychologically, and emotionally, however, the reinvention process has been slower.

In the macro, being in DC has been a mostly blessing. Watching the President and First Lady come into their own, having a decent range of news biz-related work options to explore. Yet living here since '05 also has felt sometimes like a curse— witnessing the death of the news biz, an industry in which I'd worked since college; falling prey to the boundless ambition and delusions of power that grips many "professionals" in the District.

Not trying to be a martyr here, or to say that I am without agency in this (I agreed to marry the now ex, after all; and, with his approval, to step out of what was a thriving career). I'm fortunate to have been able to learn from these mistakes, however dearly the learning came. For example, I now know the value of financial literacy, having learned it the hard way.

But I have also felt frustrated when attempting to gain professional traction in the insular, often maddeningly frivolous culture of DC media and political circles. In micro, this has meant that I often felt like a fish out of water two times over: A laissez faire Californian accustomed to superhighways, wide open spaces, and ease of job mobility, stranded in a thick swamp of rigid professional hierarchy and Beltway Insider status quo. And on top of that, in the upper-middle class Maryland suburb where we had moved in '05 -- the kind of place where Competitive Parenting is the order of the day -- I was by the end of '06 a Stay at Home Mom who suddenly had neither a high powered career, or a husband or a stable dwelling to call my own.

2) Inside the Beltway Values are Different From Yours' and Mine

What are "values" in DC? Depends on which precinct you travel in. I can say that hypocrisy, misogyny and showbiz under-gird much of what happens in the media politics-political operative spaces....and that lots of folks around here just seem to accept it.

For example, a “man” can retain a high-level professional position despite knowledge by many and apparent acceptance by a few that he has abandoned his children, refuses to pay their expenses, mentally and spiritually abuses a former wife -- and I do mean ME -- and receive not an ounce of social or professional condemnation. In DC, a "man" can do such a thing, and still turn up on national political television talk programs, experiencing no social or professional stigma whatsoever.

At the same time, I can't help but get it, the way things are in DC: Every week day, I walk past the Mayflower Hotel (pictured above) on Connecticut Avenue in DC ....and therefore have a hard time taking Elliott Spitzer seriously as the host of a CNN weeknight political talk program. I read the reports about how a DC-based International Monetary Fund executive allegedly attempted to rape a hotel worker in New York. And now, in California, I understand that there is a small army of former Arnold Swarzenegger for Governor supporters who are going public about their sense of "betrayal" following the ex-Governor's admission of infidelity. (This too is a DC story, as Arnold has not kept his presidential yearnings a secret; also, in a terrible kind of historic symmetry, his soon-to-be-ex wife, Maria Shriver, happens to come from a DC political family in which marital infidelity has been a long-running motif.) Perhaps it is my problem, I think, as I sometimes sail past the gilded entrance of the Mayflower Hotel, this naivete or whatever it is that allows you to feel betrayed by hypocrites. Clearly, career success -- and by implication overall Worthiness -- of even the rankest philanderer or deadbeat dad is what matters, right?

If you are thinking this last sounds "very," personal, well there it is. Does that make the question less legitimate?

In Washington, there is a long-standing adage for male politicians, appointees, and high-level professionals: Anything goes -- just don’t get caught with live boy or a dead girl!

A horrible joke. Yes. But in the realms of politics, media and business, men have all the power—even when they haven't earned it or don't deserve it. Even when they come right to the edge of that perverse adage. The recent disclosure by Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC that she was paid 14-times less than her co-host, Joe Scarborough, though they are supposedly equal partners on the popular, DC-centric "Morning Joe" weekday national political talk program is disheartening—but not at all surprising. And throughout the glossy media companies, trade groups, law firms, and private political strategy and communications outfits that are the engine of Washington, DC -- apart from government agencies and contractors, which at least have to hew to the pretense of an HR structure -- men routinely receive much higher pay than women, no matter if their women counterparts are better educated, smarter and more emotionally qualified to lead than they. And among elected officials in these parts...? Well, the file marked Senators and Congressmen Behaving Badly is nearly too large to carry these days, isn't it? (And hat-tip to for bringing us the indelible image of Republican Chris Lee, posing in front a bathroom mirror, shirtless in his surreptitious bid to cheat on his wife; as a language freak, I am eternally grateful for the phrase, "Shirtless Congressman," now handy way to describe the actions of some of these winners.)

Further, women in DC carry the double-burden (as is the case elsewhere in corporate America) of having to manage their children's lives and their own careers, if they choose to stay in the working world. This is not new, or unique to DC.

The double standard as it plays out here makes for an acutely thick air of hypocrisy in DC, given the high degree of "messaging" and national coverage emanating from here that argues for equitable treatment of women in the workplace and in society. Sometimes, the hypocrisy is thicker than the summer humidity that chokes the region in August.

3) One Good Thing I Have Learned in DC

There are exceptions, of course but I have been fortunate to learn that women in DC's shrinking news universe RAWK. Without the women I have been honored to know in DC media, including a few Boldface names at The Post and at NPR, I very likely might have been evicted along with my children, back in '06-'07. You ladies know who you are—thank you. Oh, and ditto for other women friends in media coast to coast, too, who helped me in a multitude of ways between 2005-09 with money, job leads, hard-headed advice, their large hearts, spirits, and patient listening. (And yes, in fairness, many men in media, too, have been supportive during that period. You guys know who you are, too, and thanks!)

4) Integrity? A Precious Thing In DC

Now that I have a bit of perspective -- and breathing room -- I can more calmly assess this odd place. I can safely say that sexism infuses just about every aspect of professional life in DC -- to our collective detriment.

For example, in my case, the personal is acutely political. The ex in my life quite adeptly plays up his Political Journalist bona fides (such as they are, and such as they are enhanced by the fact of his being black) to obtain bigger and better jobs, unlimited by the scheduling and energy-draining challenges of having to daily manage two school-aged children. During the months when I was searching for work, I sometimes wondered how I would fare if I had dumped my kids and marriage, and struck out anew. It could have gone either way....perhaps.

There I would be in a job interview. (I envision a meeting with a Big Shot Media Type in a glass-encased aerie at 400 North Capitol Street in DC, a view of the Capitol Dome over his shoulder as he interviews me.) When Prospective Employer asks, "Do you have family here?", I'd reply, "No, my Mom and siblings are on the West Coast. I am divorced. The kids live here, though, with my former husband. I see them frequently. It was tough at first but we make it work."

In my flip-the-script version, were I the Divorced Parent who did NOT have the kids fulltime, how would the male Media Exec react to the news that I had dumped my marriage and walked out on my children?

Would it glance off his shoulder, a Titleist of job candidate info, rolling down the fairway? Or would he give me the side-eye and, however politely, in the way of DC, thank me for visiting and send me along? Would he think, What kind of woman bails out on her kids?

Of course, I do not know if that is what the ex said to his current media employer -- a flashy upstart news company based in Arlington -- during their courtship last year. But I suspect that had I been a Divorced Mom Journalist seeking to re-enter the media workforce in DC, and shared with my prospective employer the news that I am NOT by my own choice the primary caretaker of my children, it would have been received quite differently than the what the ex experienced when his Old Media job ended early last year, and he set out in DC searching for another news media perch.

Meanwhile, the Schott Foundation (pdf), the Council of Great City Schools, and umpteen other big nonprofits, universities and research groups regularly publish studies and reports showing the stubborn link between black children, absentee fathers, broken homes, and the education and employment gap that bedevils the African-American population in the U.S. My ex is aware of such data, and yet continues to reject all entreaties by me to become more involved in his children's development, in school and in the daily process of their social orientation. Apparently, protecting his children on a daily basis, inoculating them against the stings and uncertainties of growing up, as well as being on hand for the little triumphs and accomplishments that also mark their daily experiences, is less important than being a DC Media maven. That does take a lot of energy -- and a good amount of rationalization.

So I am left to wonder -- What defines "credibility" in DC media circles?

5) The Media and Political Classes Here Are Different From Most Americans -- For Better and Worse

I do not subscribe to the sweeping condemnation (usually leveled by Republican candidates or operatives) that "Washington is the problem." I have been fortunate to meet plenty of wonderfully generous, fun, interesting people during the six years I've lived and worked in and around DC -- along with plenty of jerks, climbers, fakers and assholes. I try to focus on those who believe in democracy and who truly are working hard to make our nation a more equitable, compassionate place.

But it also is true that in these environs you will find a high degree of ambition, power-mongering and back-stabbing, particularly in media, political consulting and in lobbying circles. I am confident that this kind of behavior—some of which I have personally witnessed or otherwise been privy to—may be confined to a small slice of those who work in those circles. As ever, I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt and to meet them where they live (or work). Yet the Bad Actors in these spaces tend to suck up all the oxygen, distracting everyone else from the important ground-work that needs to be done.

I have been back- and front-stabbed a time or two, yes. But I am a big girl. And I sleep very well at night, thank you very much, largely because I refuse to become a Stabber. This too is a lesson I've learned here: DC seems to draw a certain type of personality that is easily seduced (and deluded) by a perceived proximity to power and by the supposed affirmation that comes from dealing with national politicians or media "stars" on a regular basis—this I know first-hand, and sadly, so do my children.

6) Another Very Good Lesson: Being on Hand When Barack Hussein Obama Became President

I am mostly happy to have had a "DC experience" during the period in which Barack Obama became president. I do not care if you think it sounds corny: I stop and wave when the POTUS' motorcade steams down Connecticut Avenue. I pore over the White House website -- bypassing the filter of the news orgs, sorry, my colleagues! -- to observe what goes on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or what gets released, anyway.) The POTUS and The FLOTUS are exceptional leaders, and as recent events in the international arena have demonstrated, President Obama is a masterful diplomat and commander in chief. I do want his Administration to turn the same kind of laser-focus that it showed in taking out Osama bin Laden toward taking down the income inequality, racial injustice and such that drags on American progress. I do not think that the Administration's relative slowness in this, however, is as harmful as the previous Administration's duplicity and uncanny ability to nurture high-level hypocrites.

I've also finally stopped fighting and learned to accept and decipher (if not appreciate!) DC euphemisms like "...[Fill in the Blank] was thrown under the bus," and, " the end of the day," and "thought leaders." Oh yes, these phrases are annoying and pretentious yet I recognize them for what they also are—tools of the trade in these parts. Boston and San Francisco, too, have their own lingua franca, and God knows Minnesota does!

It is just that, to those who live outside the Beltway, DC-speak tends to be condemned as linguistic evidence of all that is "wrong with Washington." Perhaps with good reason.

7) In Conclusion: You Know That "Washington is the Problem" Message-point That Politicians Toss Around?

I can assure you that Republican political operatives are not alone in singing that tune. The Georgetown and K Street communications and political strategists who cater to corporate entities, left and right political groups or parties; to foreign governments, and really, to anyone with a checkbook fat enough to pay them, are quite adept at pulling, twisting and turning that idea to fit the client's need. It is, perversely, a magnificent thing to behold, the gamesmanship and reality-bending that occurs in the name of "controlling the narrative."

Poor old professional DC. Its wealth of idealists, corporate climbers, policy wonks, moneychangers, overachieving Do-gooders, strivers and of course world class hypocrites makes it a lovely scapegoat for whatever ails you.

Yet and still....

I have learned that egalitarian spirit and great ideas do exist here, and that they can flourish, at times, and send good things far and wide. All one has to do is look beyond the flashy jockeying, the posing and whatnot. It requires determination and solid values that likely formed before you arrived in the nation's capitol.

But do it.

Ignore the "Gotcha" impulse, squint and you can pick it out, there beyond the filigree that obscures the beauty of our Constitution. It does exist in DC -- substance over style, reality over showbiz.