Fighting words

Our veteran federal beat columnist takes a look at some of the more perennial government follies he sees in his native nation's capital and its suburbs, despite and sometimes because of the best efforts of public servants.

Allow me to set up this one, a bit:

Imagine a half a brick, in the middle of the sidewalk in a rich, vibrant suburb of D.C.  The brick, about the size of your cell phone, is surrounded by tape. Yellow and black tape that says “CAUTION” and “DANGER” on it. You know—the kind of tape you see in a TV drama about a homicide. Now, hold that that thought for second, please …

First, a perspective check: I’m about a close to a native as it gets. I grew up in the inner city. In a boarding house between Chinatown and the White House. Other than a couple of years away, including military time, I’ve lived and worked inside the infamous Beltway that encircles Washington ever since. While many think that is only the area between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, it is really a city of 69 square miles and parts of Maryland and Virginia. Plus a couple of counties in West Virginia. Government and tourism are our main sources of income (plus what you send, thank you for that!).  But our number one occupation seems to be—fighting.  

We are the sixth-largest metro area in the nation after New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Houston. While those cities are known for different things—New York tough, Chicago the city of broad shoulders—none of them can boast as many self-designated “fighters” as the D.C. area. In the process we have also earned a title/putdown: The City of the Worried Well! Seems that fighting—I mean, as in with words and press releases—also creates a type of scaredy-cat not found in such great numbers in other, bigger places.

Just about everybody who is anybody here is fighting for something. Or against it. Almost all the time. Certainly during waking moments. Pick up a paper, turn on the radio or TV and somebody from D.C. is fighting for something (clean air, more low-cost housing. Usually the battles are between political rivals, who consider position papers, subpoenas, speeches and fund-raising as, well, fighting—the way knights of old thought of jousting. Except in many places—outside the Beltway—that thing called fighting can be dangerous, painful, even deadly. Here? Not so much! A political fight to the death means both sides will give it their all. For a while. As long as the cash—in the form of salary, commissions and/or donations, holds out.

Yep. Just about everybody who is anybody is fighting. For something. Or against it. Almost all the time. At least during the news cycle. If you doubt it ask them. Or just listen. Go online, pick up a paper, turn on the radio or TV and somebody from D.C. is fighting for something (clean air, more low-cost housing, something great.) Lawyers and politicians spend their working lives attacking each other by day, and dining together in the evenings. Or even taking vacations together. Blood enemies in public, bosom buddies off-the-clock. It is what we do.   

Most fighters, D.C.-style, come from somewhere else. Like New Hampshire and South Dakota or California and Texas. Ironically, you, as voters, send them here to represent you in the House, Senate or White House. And while they’re supposed to represent you and the nation, many become ultimate Beltway insiders, intent on staying on the payroll—and often just pretending at fighting for you. While actually just worrying about themselves. (And, again, you send them here!)

Now, rant over, back to the brick on the sidewalk, surrounded by yellow and black warning tape. And the crowds that shuffled around it for several hours. It was in an affluent suburb (Bethesda). It was and is populated by doctors, lawyers, lobbyists and politicians. Fighters all.   Although it has some of the best public schools in the nation, many of our elected-leaders choose to send their kids to $50k per annum private schools, all the while urging (ordering) you to go public with your kids.

Some students of the faux fighters of D.C. think that being here creates mental backlash that makes people here cautious. To a fault. Hence the City of The Worried Well.

What happened that summer day is that somebody spotted a half brick lying in the middle of the sidewalk in the center of town. Now, in many if not most places---Omaha or even Seattle---somebody would have picked it up. And deposited it in a nearby trash can. Problem solved, life goes on. Major threat of half a brick obstacle solved. Maybe where you live. Not here!

In this case, somebody spotted an opportunity to “fight” while living up to our Worried Well label. Somebody in offiicaldom was called about the brick. They in turn sent a team with the tape. The “danger” was blocked off until somebody, maybe a visitor from Kansas or Georgia picked it up and tossed it in the trash. Saving countless lives! Fighting for you! Your tax dollars in action.

Moral of the story, if there is one, is … we are fighting for you here in the Nation’s Capital. The downside, since you are paying for it, is that the battles are so fierce because the stakes are often so small!

NEXT STORY: Gender gap in fed STEM jobs

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