Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Government Career


I went into government service because of the parsley. As I noted in a previous post, I had taken my PhD, in biology not to a prestigious post-doc appointment, but to the restaurant kitchen. After many merry adventures, I found myself in the kitchen of a four-star hotel in Miami, working as a stage, which is what they call the grunts who actually carry out in physical foodstuffs the brilliant creations of the celebrity chefs. I was chopping parsley, a mindless task that I rather liked. After you chop the parsley, you put it in cheesecloth and rinse it, and then dry it out with paper toweling so that it is nice and fluffy and sprinkles well. I was just about to do this rinse when the chef walks by my station. This chef was a short, fat drunken megalomaniac—that is, he was similar to many of the chefs I had worked for—and he looked at my parsley and was not pleased. He felt my parsley and declared that it was not chopped finely enough. He screamed at me. He grew red in the face and vented upon me the unhappiness of his existence. What could I say? The parsley was not fine enough to exhibit quantum effects, but it was pretty fucking fine.

I was starting to feel bad and wondering how long a jolt I would have to do in Raiford if I stuck my eight-inch Sabatier through this asshole’s gut, when it hit me: I have a Ph.D. I don’t have to be yelled at by people like this. I could get yelled at by a superior class of asshole! So in this dawning light I left my station and made a phone call to the wife of a friend of mine who worked for the Metro Dade County government and told her I needed a job. Those were the days when you could get a job by calling a friend with a job.

I owned a suit and a pair of shoes that had miraculously survived existence in the duffle bag in which I had carried my worldlies for a decade, and I bought a cheap white shirt and a hideous polyester tie in the K-Mart. I went for an interview, during which my fingernails were examined for dirt. My tie elicited no comment. I was given a contract to prepare a report on the county jail and given a stack of bumf two feet high to read. To someone who has spent half-a-dozen years thinking seriously about marine ecosystems and the survival strategies of their denizens, a jail is not much of a challenge. I was given two months to perform the contract; I finished in two weeks, and was hired on the spot as a policy analyst.

It is the task of policy analysts to make government more efficient and effective by questioning its processes and procedures, typically using observation, interviews and numerical techniques. They evaluate programs and devise new ones for emerging problems. When the kid dies while in the care of the government, when drunks make downtown unbearable for the bourgeois, when the fire department can’t seem to get to the fires on time, the policy analysts get called in. Or not; for no one likes someone with a direct line to the county manager poking into their operations, and so the use and the usefulness of policy analysis depends entirely on whether the chief executive has the balls to stand up to his subordinates and their political cronies.

I had a good time as a PA. I had an actual middle-class salary for the first time in my life, with benefits. I bought a couple of suits, and better ties. I had some successes; I moved to a higher-level job, with a substantial staff, and that was fun too, and then someone from the White House called and asked me to come to Washington and work on a special project. Like a fool, I went, because if you’re in government, then the White House is like pitching for the Yankees is for a minor league hurler.

I didn’t actually work in the White House, of course. The Executive Office of the President is about five thousand or so people, and I was one of them, but I had the gold chicken on my business card, pretty classy, and when I really, really had to get someone to call back I could say I was the White House. But, being a diffident fellow, I usually identified myself as being from the EOP. Practically no one knows what the Executive Office of the President is. I once in the lost era before e-mail called the CEO of one of our great corporations and named that office as my employer and the secretary asked, “President of what?” I said, “Of the United States of America, one nation under God, you’ve seen our ads?” Silence, click, and there was the guy.

Being a tiny pimple on the world’s biggest whale was an interesting experience, glorification and ignominy curiously mixed. You work like a slave, ridiculous hours, at projects of uncertain significance. You row your tiny boat like a madman, pushing against the hull of the immense supertanker, hoping to turn it a fraction of an inch in the direction that you know represents the ultimate salvation of the Republic, and you see the other people in their rowboats shoving in different directions, and there are still others who want to sink the tanker entirely, believing that the failure of government will usher in the earthly paradise.

In fact, I did little governing. As soon as my masters discovered I could write, that’s what I did, policy papers and then speeches. Ultimately I became a speech writer at the cabinet level, which is hot shit in old DC, because what comes out of the boss’s mouth is really significant to his satraps, clients, and foes alike. It is like a dog spraying a tree—all the other dogs must come and sniff. Every phrase is parsed, to see what direction the supertanker is going to turn, and, gosh, if you’re actually writing those phrases then it’s easy to become the most popular girl at the prom. A good speech writer must therefore cultivate obscurity like a rock star cultivates fame; I found this not at all difficult.

It’s nearly fifteen years now since I collected my last sip off the public tit, and I can’t say that I miss it. Writing political speeches was fun, but I prefer my fiction straight up, which is why I do what I do now. On the other hand, it drives me nuts when I hear government described derogatorily as “them” and “that mess in Washington.” In my experience, government is perfectly reflective of the nation at large. There are plenty of dull slugs in it, but there are also people who changed our world for the better (I actually met the guy who pushed through the earliest funding for the silly and government-wasteful idea that computers should be able to send messages to each other.) Anyway, two cheers for the bureaucracy. Like democracy it’s the worst system, except for all the others. When I was a gov slug I had a framed quotation on my wall, from Machiavelli: In the service of princes, great guile, tact and imagination are needed to achieve even modest ends; and still one may fail in ugly ways. Amen to that.

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