II. I Want To Conquer The World
It was his first time living alone. In a studio in Arlington, furnished by Ikea and paid for with monthly checks from home, he found himself confronted by his independence. It was amazing. Outside the window the capital gleamed in late May sunlight. Marble neoclassical structures erupted from the ground with patriotic prominence and an air of sacred history. Toby was struck dumb with awe. He was finally here.
He bought books. Biographies of Madison and Monroe. Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant. Both Roosevelts. Clinton and Kennedy. Ike and Reagan. Books on Webster, Clay, Hamilton, and Henry. And of course Washington. There was an entire shelf of Washington, appended by busts of George and Martha on either end, basking in the radiant attention of top shelf eminence.
The metro was fast and clean. Rosslyn to Capitol South was a breeze. Advertisements suggested proximity to power—defense contractors, interest lobbies, and top schools all vied for eye space. People were always suited, buried in Blackberries or copies of the Post, looking hurried and important. Like the last gasp of Cherry Blossom tourists he could hardly look without being agape at the spectacle of government.
As a Hill intern, Toby met amazing people every day. Everyone had a story—fancy degrees, campaign slogs, bitter policy fights, inside knowledge on which congressman had what vice and what ambitions drove each office. Within a week of overheard conversations, he'd become an insider.
He collected government officials like people sighted celebrities. Toby saw the Speaker eating fajitas with the Minority Whip at Tortilla Coast. An undersecretary martini drunk with interns at Ebbitt. The vice president leaving a senate vote. He even stood behind a Justice at the video store.
Of course most days were mundane. Answering calls from constituents, tallying the for and against sentiment. Making coffee and sorting mail. Occasionally he'd run messages to his member while in session. Those were special days, watching floor debates and subcommittees grill experts. War, terrorism, taxes, farm subsidies—all battles waged in the Capitol before they were fought in the field. Toby witnessed history.
Outside of the Hill he marched the Mall. Walking the tidal basin to the Jefferson, he considered matters of statecraft. Under Lincoln's steady gaze he'd ponder the rights and responsibility of citizenship. While mingling among tourists he felt viscerally American, aware that he shared a common weal and destiny with these pilgrims.
He discovered happy hours. The city had a mania for them. A Washingtonian cultural experience that rivaled the Kennedy Center and Fourth of July. Every bar had them. Everyone went to them. People were aggressive with drinks and particular in taste, offering him his first real chance to explore the city. He was introduced to acid jazz in Dupont. Took kamikazes from squeeze bottles in an Adams Morgan bar that smelled like piss. Hit his credit limit in Georgetown.
Staggering home across the Key Bridge one night he found himself lost again in a recurring romantic notion. Toby was in a city that ruled.
IIII. You Look Like I Need A Drink
Skintern season again. It always seemed to sneak up on him. He'd be at drunk brunch on a patio when all of sudden some blonde who was too Southern pretty for the city would come running by in a tight shirt that said University of Somewhere and he'd realize that the early birds were already in their sublets. Soon it would be time to get to work.
May to August in the city is special. Cherry Blossoms wilt but something else blooms. DC is flush with interns. They double the work force in every office and industry and do it for free. For every kid who can’t afford it, there are two others waiting with daddy's credit card to take their place.
For residents the population explosion was a boon. Not that the domestic student body was bad—there’s never a dull night in Thurston—but interns had a life of little work, no pay, and a lot of time to cruise bars for free drinks. Toby worked for a powerful committee chair, complete with an impressive title, name badge clip that he wore like heraldry, and cash to burn on novelty shots. He gazed along the late morning sidewalks like a king surveying his kingdom.
Dating skinterns wasn't easy. There were types. Why is she here? First, drop the ones from the NGOs. She’s here to save something—the environment, kids, poor people, Africans, whatever—and she’s mighty sanctimonious about it. Toby once tried to explain the virtues of compromise and legislative strategy to someone with a cause. He wouldn’t repeat that disaster. Second, there are the Hill girls. Tempting, but he won't poop where he eats. A reputation is hard to lose and the city is small and his circle smaller. Better are the contractors, lobbyists, bankers, and marketing firms. PR firms are the best. She’s out there to sell people on herself, and if you're recruiting that's half the battle. Think tank girls never put out.
Where she’s from? West Coast girls are great but most are disqualified by NGO work. East coast is pushy and ambitious—good for a one night, but it's not his taste. Toby's more comfortable with the Midwestern and Southern girls—he's from the heartland—but after five years each one seems like the last. The District is good at bringing in foreign talent—World Bank, IDB, embassies, and other multinationals are always scouting for dual somethings. It's a crap shoot. If he can talk to them, he plays. He prefers the girls from rich families because they always have someone back home to and like him are only looking for a summer, maybe less.
Where to go is easy. Interns like cheap. Dollar beers in McPherson. Dollar jello shots on Eighteenth. Dollar cans in Petworth. Everyone knows Adams Morgan, so it's the best place to start, meet, and get digits. Toby arranges the first date somewhere nice. If she's fascinated with government, he makes reservations downtown where administration staff eats. If she comes from money he takes her to the Palm for a steak she won't finish or to Georgetown for something overpriced by real estate and reputation. For the culturally impressed, he has the hometown favorites--Ben's, Ethiopian, Cashion's, or the Tabbard. From there, quiet drinks if she likes to talk or someplace sloppy if she likes to dance. Eventually he takes them home. His housemates are idiots--NGO slobs and cube jockeys and a hipster who thinks he can make it in music someday--but they are accommodating even though the walls are thin.
Of course, nothing is without disadvantages. Each has a story about the special snowflake she is. Armed with dreams and parental subsidies, they're here to change the world. A night can be filled with endless litanies of ambitions, academic name dropping, bullshit theories, and unfounded confidence in her homespun biases. After that, there's a story about her first boyfriend, first drink, first drunk, and first lay. If he's lucky, it's the same story. The job is always important, no matter the drudgery of the duties.
Here's the truth. Paper is made to be pushed, invented to increase the importance of the one who employs pushers. Coffee is drunk with unrefined sugar and heavy cream to support lobbies in Hawaii and Wisconsin. Constituents are kept enraged and angst filled to prevent clear headed thinking. Interns are cheap fodder in the war of egos. The delusion that they are something more is merely a lie fed to keep them hungry. Networks are team affiliations intended to keep fresh blood pumping into the system.
Working with them is the worst. Waking up hung over every day to a youthful go getter thirsting for attention and praise is like having a well-dressed talking puppy in the office. Work is invented to keep them distracted. New copies ordered to keep them occupied. A project suspended in infinite revision less for perfection than the treadmill generated by perpetual iteration. Occasionally bones are tossed their way. A degree to establish authority. An old story to cement credibility. A piece of gossip about a member to emphasize analytical acuity. After three months they disappear with a letter of recommendation, leaving behind a wake of incomplete work that a staffer needs to fix. If the office is lucky, some quirky stories about their eager awkwardness to laugh about later over beers.
During the fall and winter the serious season lies. Elections are settled. Offices transition. The city becomes dour and gray and suspended in a permanent misting gloom. Good time to find a girlfriend. Dating in DC is like a Russian roulette of self-involvement so, outside stability and casual interest, there are fewer rules to guide him. Toby prefers grad students because they are busy enough to permit him happy hours and free enough to sleep over a few days a week. It helps if they study something interesting. Much better if they have no plans of settling in the city--in the darkest nights of winter, another spring wasn’t far off.
VIIII. Sleepwalk Capsules
Pursuing opportunities in the private sector. That's what they called it when an insurgent campaign toppled a thirty year veteran and committee chairman. Never call it a loss. Only losers lose. Sometimes candidates are just out won by some populist who feeds the people what they want to hear without having a track record of their own compromised values. Sometimes a member is unfairly held to account for an economic downturn that no one could have anticipated. It is always the voters' fault—they're getting increasingly ignorant and irascible—but that's only acknowledged in private. Never look backwards. The lone figure casting a light on the past learns nothing. Momentum should be kept forward moving. There's another cycle in two years, less with the off year terms.
Toby would have preferred to go into lobbying. The money was better and there were quite a few policy shops that would have paid top dollar for his connections. Ethics rules closed that revolving door. It was Congress' loss. Lobbyists were the only people in the capital who understood policy any more.
He ended up going into consulting. Mostly campaign side but with opportunities to move into PR and relationship management when he was allowed to make business calls on members again. Housed in a brutalist eye sore on K street with long conference tables and a flowing fountain in the reception area, he was set up in a corner office below one of the partners. It was the first work space he had to himself. He rarely used it. The desk area was kept clean save for an ink pen and old style blotter. The only photo on his desk was a frame capture from Scarface—Tony Montana reminding him that the world was his.
Toby had a staff. Best and brightest with every bit of the original irony. Mostly they were a bunch of young punk middle twenty year olds who thought they knew everything about Washington, politics, and getting laid. Their confidence was sophomoric and laughable. He acknowledged that they were tech savvy. On comms strategy they were practically indispensable--they understood how to connect, how to share, how to distill sound bites into one hundred forty character acerbity. At times their wit was even viral, infecting the internet with three to five minute distractions that bought campaigns a lot of thought space. But they had a fundamental misunderstanding of how things worked. Politics is local. DC is built on relationships. Cheeky status updates may get the likes but they didn't shift the polls or get voters in the booth. It still took hand shakes, TV commercials, and radio spots to get the voters ginned up enough to punch their ballots. New media was spice, it added flavor, but it still couldn't cook dinner. When you boiled it down to those facts, all you were left with were a bunch of neophyte operatives that were overexposed and forever captured in the photographic cliches of keg stands, cherried bowls, and European studies abroad. In one way or another, they were gunning for his job. That didn't bother Toby. Hungry subordinates stayed up late, spitballed creative spots, looked bad when they talked shit. In short, their ambition made them pliable.
Besides his young turks, he had a secretary. For the first three months he tried the hottest thing in a pencil skirt but bounced her out for a punctual grandmother raising her daughter's sons. Aging was choosing reliability over pleasing curves. What's true for cars is true for the women who schedule your working lunches.
Power lunches were a new phenomenon to Toby. Whereas happy hour was the social glue for the young and arrogant, the connected spent their meals with iPhones, business cards, and strategy sessions. Being seen was as important as the company you kept and getting business meant associating with success. Rather than doing the watching he was now the watched, shaking hands as he walked into downtown restaurants, speaking loudly into his phone when he needed to sound intelligent, leaning in conspiratorially when discretion was warranted. Evenings were meant for formal wear and high ball glasses. He took his bourbon neat, his martinis dry, and favored California red in case a client might notice. Small talk was no longer prognostications of political success but nuanced repetition of a client's position. Every chance he got he pimped himself out in three and a half by two dimensions.
Consultancy is a fancy word for traveling salesman in the same way that pollster means bullshitter. The partners at So And So and Company had a product and it was his duty to sell it. Local campaigns were small ball and almost always off limits unless they were priming a rising star. Statewide only mattered in purple states. National campaigns were the real deal, especially if he could raise the profile of the company by backing a winner. Internal politics are more fractious than those of the general campaign. Positions between any given opponents are generally similar--most electionary haggling is only over the details: terrorism bad, prosperity good, local pork development, pork to other districts waste. Inside a campaign, however, egos and careers are at stake. Loyalists who have backed the candidate since day one are pitted against the outsiders who have come in at the behest of the party. New blood chafes against the establishment. Primaries are brutal and the intra-party solidarity for the general election is a facade.
Traveling for a living encourages weird habits. Menus of national restaurants are memorized. Strong opinions of the relative happy hour specials of chain diners are developed. Frequent flier miles determine airlines traveled. Flights are booked business class if they're under three hours, first class if they're more. Hotels should be booked only if they have a bar, HBO, and queen sized beds. King is too big and double twins breeds unreasonable rage. The PA has her home, cell, and work numbers kept on speed dial so she can be bitched out every time she doesn't get it right. Toby's first engagement ends over text messages while he's at an Applebee's in Duluth.
Going from insider to outsider was an adjustment. Victory is no longer the singular goal. There are other agendas that have to be managed concurrently with the everyday electioneering. Messaging is not only on issues for the campaign but also for the party. Positions are nuanced between voter focus groups, party leaders, and issue oriented PACs. Candidates need more than two sides of their mouths to keep interests happy. Coattails are ridden in good years and distance discovered in bad. Endorsements are sold like mortgages, the price of the debt to be discovered upon office.
It's Toby's job to fly into a campaign and talk messaging. When that's clear, he flies back to his office. He then bumps into someone at the gym. They chat for a minute and then a hitherto unknown organization calling themselves Voters Against This or Citizens For That runs a complimentary attack ad. This is not coordination. This is coincidence.
Victory is won in the trenches. Legislative battles over how districts are drawn up. Appointments to the courts. District Attorney races swing the battle for the House. An off year governor determines the next junior senator. Toby makes all kinds of strange bedfellows. Union leaders, commerce groups, church organizations, sports franchises--everyone has an interest in the game and it's up to him to help manage their expectations and win their support. Euphemistically, this is coalition building. Wags who like to coin names based on the unsavory side of politics don't understand what it takes to get elected these days.
He prefers congress races. He detests working on DC local stuff. It's in the interest of the establishment to make sure that there is someone cooperative who emerges from the primaries. It would be an embarrassment to have someone who bucks leadership on education reform and tax policy less than a mile away. Resentment over nonrepresentation in congress stews beneathe the surface. Advice from the party is brushed off. In the office, it's all smiles. Behind his back, eyes rolling. DC politicians have been in the city for decades. They have seen legislative, executive, and party regimes rise and fall in each election cycle. Presidents and majority leaders may determine the temporary fortunes of consultants like Toby, but Old City Hall endures. They play by their own rules, have their own money men, and his presence is the bone they throw back to the party in case they some day have to play ball over appropriations. It is less deference than it is detente.
Political consultancy has its upsides. Consultants never lose campaigns. They just offer well informed and prescient counsel. Candidates who lose are ones who didn't follow it. Those who win owe their success to the advisory team and daily conference calls. Advice is the most sustainable industry in America. Politics is an engine of job growth. DC is its heart. Toby is its mouth.
X. Bullet With Butterfly Wings
Scandal. Everybody loves one. The salacious details of others' misdeeds are a reaffirmation of our own superiority. Schadenfreude. A word so perfect it's preserved in the original tongue. In lieu of native high culture and major championships in this century, it's DC blood sport. If the everyday congressional gridlock is political kabuki, then downfall is amateur night at a porno theater. Ugly and beautiful at once.
Political fortune is a tough beast. As the wheel turns, some rise, others fall. Given enough time, all politics come back into vogue. Failures are forgotten and the legacies of national leaders are rebranded as success and misunderstanding. With enough gumption, money, and fire in the belly, anyone can stage a comeback. Then again, the wheel works the other way. On a long enough time line, all your decisions catch up with you.
It's bad luck for Toby that he got caught in a down turn while he was young.
Georgetown is brutal in the late July afternoon. Temperature index is way up. Trees and grass seem to wilt in the stifling scorch of sun. People are drenched with humidity. Heat lines wave up from the asphalt with promises of mirage that never materialize. Rather it is just a permanent haze, continuous distortion of the true picture beyond the blaze.
DC is seething in the kiln of summer. It is a train off the rails. It is the epicenter of global power. It is the eye of the storm.
Vans line the block. Staring out the window, he associates logo with address. Nebraska Avenue. Uptown Wisconsin. M Street in South Dupont. They was something pagan in their thirst for comment, a primordial blood lust with which they attacked him with their questions. Toby felt marked in the same way livestock is anointed for offering. All they needed now was to erect the maypole and assemble the alter. Sharpen their knives and chant their oblations.
There were a couple of factors that exacerbated his bad luck. First, Congress was winding down for recess with all big business deferred until early fall. The Court had rendered all its big decisions weeks ago and the controversy had already died down. Off year election cycle and the incumbent at Pennsylvania Ave. was relatively popular and without a significant rival personality on the other side of the aisle. No big developments in the permanent war. In short, there was little fodder for the news cycle and Toby was a fresh scrap.
It should not be news. It was all about news. Politics is about messaging. Policy is for nerds. There is nothing sexy about it and no one outside the Beltway understands it. What they get in Peoria in neatly constructed narratives. There are heroes and villains. There is decisive action that the good guys are taking to fix the country and keep Americans safe. There are morons and socialists and Nazis that are about to ruin everything with a law that will take away freedoms and hand the country over to the Chinese Islamofascists. These competing stories are spun endlessly in hour long segments and four hour broadcast cycles. Unless someone gets their voice out there with the proper spin, any little soundbite or out of context excerpt is bound to hurtle out of orbit from reality and get caught up in the tinfoil gravity of talk radio crazies and national controversy. Like it or not, stories needed to be minded. Guards were deployed to the press to dispense facts on background to counter disinformation. Grotesque though it may be to someone with a hard on for ethics and secrecy, it was necessary for the messengers to be in place, active and vocal, in order for the eggheads to do their job keeping the country afloat.
Some people can't handle that truth.
Misfortune tends to shake up the world and settle the pieces in their proper light. It becomes apparent who is willing to offer support. His wife and brats were riding out the storm in St. Louis with his father-in-law. Friends are immediately differentiated from hangers on. A friend can be described as someone who comments to the press about inexplicable blunders and hopes aloud that it doesn't cast a pall over the good that has been done by an individual. Former groupies discover the distance between them and the afflicted as if it had been an unbridgeable gulf at strategy meetings and photo ops. Enemies materialize where once a name had been unknown. Your lawyer is the only one who returns your calls. Relative organs of power and hierarchy become startling clear. Your counsel hears from the chief of staff that the once indispensable Vice President is having difficulty getting an appointment with POTUS to discuss the matter of the prosecution. That anyone is willing to back you at all is a pleasant revelation.
Legacy is suddenly paramount. Toby is being dissected nightly with less care than a frog in a high school science lab. He is suddenly a major figure in the administration. A corrosive influence, power behind the throne, typical Beltway power broker, a kingmaker, a punching bag for conspiracy theorists. His fellow minders are out in force minimizing the role he's played in every presidential decision, national election, and congressional vote taken by the half dozen congressmen he's worked with over the past fifteen years. His role is minor. His access nonexistent. As far as the administration is concerned he is a nonentity who disclosed information he should not have been privy to and investigations are underway to avoid future irresponsibility by lesser officials.
The FBI Agents are formal and polite. There is no good cop or bad cop. Only bland cop and routine cop. Toby is peppered by do you know this and who told you that and did you disclose it and when. A week ago he had had an interview with some of their colleagues for a security clearance and a promotion. Now, they just wanted to flesh out their postmortem of his guilt. The air rings with don't recalls, can't says, and constant invocation of the fifth. His lawyer nods forcefully, reframes the nature of their inquiry through procedural argument, and pats Toby on the back once his statement is finished. Good job is what the gesture means. They both know they did not come for expressions of guilt and contrition. The feds will be absolute sharks in bulldogs' clothing with all of his colleagues. It is them who will be threatened with obstruction of justice and lying to a federal agent. He has already been chosen, targeted by the cross hairs of prosecutorial catharsis. They will complete the ritual of his guilt and condemnation without him.
The Federal Prosecutor smiled when Toby first walked in court. He was smug, and why not? Beady eyed and otherwise indistinct in look and career, he had landed the political big game that would cement his reputation in town. He could look forward to higher appointment in the DoJ and maybe a bench nomination in the next ten or twenty years. His bones were made with Toby's ashes.
It doesn't matter how his name first surfaced. Nights are spent awake trying to determine which hands pushed him under the oncoming bus. There is no such thing as an idle moment. Instead, there is a series of scenarios being gamed in his head. They all end with federal prison and a pariah status, dim hopes of a decent performing mea culpa memoir, maybe a adjunct professorship at a mid tier four year college, future hopes of being a talking head contributing to the political odds making that keeps cable news in business. Occasionally when it gets too dark, he permits himself to imagine a commutation or even a full pardon. Sometimes he dreams that the case is dropped altogether, the agents apologize to him, the prosecutor gnashes his teeth in anger and frustration over his now stalled career. Toby poured out all the booze in the house and snapped every cigarette in the first pack he bought since his marriage. Disgrace must be born sober. Drunkenness can only bring wallowing self pity and maudlin curses against betrayal.
There is something bitter in the coffee that is not the dark roast of the bean. He cannot put his finger on it, but he sees it every day. It is screaming visible in the PBR swilling NoMa hipsters that debate the virtues of the local brews. It's on every sidewalk corner asking for a moment of time to solicit for one bullshit cause after another. He sees it in the eyes of the bums panhandling on Connecticut and in the Foggy Bottom snobs whose groins swell at the thought of realpolitik. It's sitting in front of a green screen at six in the morning while the self-promoting morning anchor prattles on into the earpiece with pompous questions and glib interpretations that he accuses of being 'news.' It's getting the feed cut when a valid point is scored. It's the subject the Amharic nattering of every cabby as they cleave through traffic laws like unnecessary red tape. It's the self righteous bikers who punch cars and run red lights and flip the bird after every low velocity collision that they precipitated. It's the drunken pedestrians staggering across U street. It's the Nats hats that replaced the O's caps, the Cowboys jerseys that seem to outwear the 'Skins every Sunday, the Caps who collapse in the cup finals and the 'Zards who were only marginally better when they repped violence. It is the controversy over the 'Skins. It's Georgetown shirts. Most definitely Georgetown law grads. It's in every small plate restaurant that charges over twenty dollars for what costs twenty cents in De Nang. It's the where you from and what do you do introduction that distills the only thing white DC cares about. It's Hot Spots and Best Bets and Going Out Guide. It's every twenty something yammering on the phone like they know something about something in a city they have spent three months in. He hears it on the lips of every windbag developer thanking the gentrifiers for improving neighborhood by displacing their neighbors. It's in every press release by every political would be promising the nation its next quick fix. It's every congressional hearing where his homunculus is shouting I plead the fifth, the fif, the fizzzzzzzzzzzzzzif, the motherfucking I don't have to answer your bullshit while you grandstand and tack on a question at the end for form's sake. It's in his contact list. It stares back from the mirror.
What does he see? Thinning blonde hair, dusty eyes, glistening aftershave from a fresh razor. Years in congress dues paid careers made dates birthdays holidays school plays all missed in service to the country and congress and president whose thanks for years of service as continuing support evaporate as soon as one anonymous comment is correctly attributed to its speaker. Rules of respect and deference that have faded into the bygone. Thankless soldiers in a losing war for the heart of the nation, sacrificing themselves continuously at the alter of the fat, stupid, lazy, and overbored that pass for citizens. The price of loyalty.
The federal prosecutor and several agents arrive in Escalades. Deputy Attorney General Asshole is in his finest pinstripes with a fat tongued power tie. The agents wear their standard issue windbreakers like varsity jackets. Toby texts his lawyer. Setting down his coffee he walks to the foyer mirror and straightens his tie. A full Windsor with subdued tones, attended to by a modest gray suit, thin wool for the summer because linen wrinkles too easily and you don't want to look like you slept in the suit the night before, it is every shade of dignity necessary for his perpwalk. A knock is rapped at the door. He senses the cameras closing in on his porch. Toby takes a deep breath and turns around to face the day.