From the time I was pretty young, I worked. Not in a hideously abusive child labor kind of way, but in a socially acceptable going-to-work-with-my-father kind of way.
My father had his own heating and air conditioning business, which meant two things: he worked hard, and I did a lot of menial tasks. There was carrying his tools, holding the flashlight if he needed it, running back to the truck for something, cleaning up when he was done. In fact, now that I think about it, a large part of my going to work with my father was probably him trying to simply demonstrate what hard work was. And he did.
There are misconceptions about the way things work in Washington, D.C., because people assume things happen more or less the same way they do everywhere else. Except for gravity, as well as a handful of the very basic laws of nature, the exact opposite of that is true. The concept of "failing up" was probably invented in Washington.
I had worked hard on the campaign in 1992, worked hard on the transition into 1993, and had done nothing but volunteer for two months at the White House, hoping to land a job. I had volunteered for every menial, scut job I could find. Drive some muckety-muck around Little Rock and listen to them complain about the lack of fine dining? Fine. Death by a thousand paper cuts filing papers in a giant closet all day? Sure, no problem. Stand at a photocopier until the blinding light caused my eyes to bleed? Absolutely.
I had done the dirty work of campaigns: humiliating phone calls at the phone bank until the oppresive hang-ups and don't-call-here-anymore rants flayed my very soul. Mind-numbingly opening mail all day with little old ladies. My brain is literally unable to forget some of the recipies they discussed over, and over, and over, and over.
I'd done all that -- and more. I'd worked all-nighters. I wore a tie, for God's sake. I was 21 years old wearing a tie. Who does that if not a dedicated soul?
When I was hired by the Office of Presidential Personnel, thanks in large part to a kind woman amd fellow Arkansan named Dana, I was pretty happy. I made good friends -- lifelong friends -- in that office, and it was a great place to start.
I wasn't smart enough to think it at the time, but looking back, I deserved that first job. I had worked for it, which I am sure you think is a perfectly reasonable turn of events. After all, when you work hard, aren't you rewarded at your job? Maybe you get a promotion. Maybe you get a raise. Maybe you get meaningful praise from your colleagues and your boss.
I already told you: everything you think you know about how Washington works is probably wrong. This is no different.
The Old Executive Office Building -- what they now call the Eisenhower Executive Office Building -- is the behemoth situated on the White House property right next door to the West Wing of the White House. When I was there, you walked right through the courtyard off Pennsylvania Avenue, up the steps, and through the grand front doors (past the porch where the smokers could hang out). There was heavy security, of course -- Secret Service Agents in the Uniformed Division manned a station there at all times.
My office, which consisted of a desk in the corner of a gigantic office shared by Dana and one other woman, was just on the other side of the security gates. It was kind of the main entrance for the Office of Presidential Personnel, where all the presidential appointee applications went to be vetted, and as such, it was kind of a central hub for people to linger and congregate.
One of my most memorable days was the day a guy my age -- Paul -- showed up... with his mother. Now, this was the White House. It wasn't uncommon for people to bring in visitors and family in from out of town to show them around, give them the grand tour.
Paul and his mother were different.
First of all, you have to know that Paul's mother was somebody. I hadn't been in Washington long enough to know that when somebody walked into a room, you were supposed to do two things: pretend like you knew exactly who they were (even though it had just been whispered to you), and act very reverential.
Since I knew neither of those things, I acted like an idiot.
It got worse, because Paul's mother began bragging that Paul had just landed a new job in the White House -- implying that us bums across the road were in a virtual ghetto -- a plum assignment. She had gotten him this job, she went on to say, by making several phone calls and telling people who she was and that her son needed a job.
Remember that Paul was standing right there.
I'm a forty year-old man and I still haven't forgiven my mother for having the audacity to ask my high school journalism teacher why I had to come in early to work on the school newspaper. The shame of parental interfernece lingers in me after nearly twenty-five years.
The rules aren't the same up there: shame, as you and I know it, simply does not exist.
The story for me got weird because I actually thought Paul may have had some sort of, well, special need. Aren't those usually the kids who have their parents do stuff for them? Dana scolded me later when I asked her if Paul was "special".
I'll admit it: I carried a grudge against Paul for some time -- until my pent up range finally morphed into an even uglier grudge against a profoundly unfair (and breathtakingly stupid) system. I'd worked my ass off to get a job in the Clinton Administration. This kid's mommy made some phone calls, and poof, he's learning to pee-pee like a big boy without his helmet, or whatever, in the bathrooms outside the Situation Room.
It is true that my continued hard work is what kept me working in Washington for as long as I did. That example was a parental gift that no phone call could hope to touch. My life has been forever enriched by my professional experiences in Washington, and it was all worth the hard work.
And lest anyone think I'm being too hard on poor Paul, it all shakes out in the end. It should be noted for the record that he was not, in fact, special needs. If anyone wants to do a compare and contrast, I am a hack blogger living in Gulfport, Florida, and he is -- no kidding -- a lawyer, the founder of a company, and the chairman and president of another.