Advice to Aspiring Washington Whizzes

John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU

The late political scientist James Q, Wilson once observed that in Western Europe and Japan, promising students take a competitive exam to enter the civil service, and if they pass the test they can rise in time to hold fairly high positions in their governments. But in the United States, Wilson added, “If you back the winning presidential candidate, you are presumed to have passed the test.”

Let’s imagine that it’s a year from now. You backed the winning candidate for president and thus passed the big test. Now you would like to be part of the new administration. How do you pull it off?

It is that special madcap time known as the transition, the ten weeks between the election and the presidential inauguration classically described by Henry Adams in his novel Democracy, published in 1880:

“This is the moment when the two whited sepulchers at either end of the Avenue [the Capitol and White House] reek with the thick atmosphere of bargain and sale. The old is going; the new is coming. Wealth, office, [and] power are at auction. Who bids highest? Who hates with most venom? Who intrigues with most skill? Who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, and the most political work? He shall have his reward.”

Here is some advice as you weigh into this turmoil and begin your quest for a position, either in the White House or in one of the departments and agencies:

  • Don’t wait for the phone to ring; you have to take action on your own. You may be thinking 100 percent of the time about going to Washington, but those in a position to give you that job may not be thinking about you at all.
  • You need a sponsor or advocate, someone who will either take you into government with him or her or who will keep pestering the new administration until they finally give you a job.
  • This is a very sound Plan A. But you should have a Plan B or even a Plan C in case it doesn’t work.
  • Being from the home state of the new president has both pluses and minuses. The pluses are obvious: You may already know someone going into the new administration who can become your sponsor. But every president is accused of stuffing the government with homestaters, and you may be sacrificed to these howlers. A friend of mine from Texas was given an appointment in the George W. Bush Administration, but she was asked to list herself as a resident of Washington DC, just so the number of Texans would be one fewer.
  • The irony of this tale is that in every administration for the past few decades – and, I predict, forever more – the number-one source of appointees is the greater Washington area, not the president’s home state. Washingtonians have many built-in advantages: They know the policies; they know the politics; they have the connections; and most valuable of all, they’re already there. They don’t have to get a house, a dentist, a doctor, a vet, a school for the kids, a job for the spouse, or District of Columbia (or Virginia or Maryland) license plates for the car. For them, taking an appointment in the new administration is a simple matter of flicking off the lights in their old private-sector office on a Friday evening and flicking them on in their new government office the following Monday morning.
  • So, let’s now suppose you have successfully snared a job with the new administration. The day after the inaugural balls, you show up for work – maybe a little groggy but still very excited. You now begin your education in how things really work in Washington. You learn early-on that seemingly minor things have enormous importance.

For example, how far is your office from the boss? Are you even on the same floor? There’s an old saying, “Where you sit is where you stand.”

The Pentagon (where I spent four years) has of course five sides, but it also has five rings. Of these, only the one on the outside, the so-called E Ring, has any cachet. But it’s not enough just to be on the E-Ring: Your office has to be on one of only two sides of the Pentagon, the so-called River and Mall entrances. Even then, you have to have an even-numbered office on the E-Ring on either the Mall or River entrances. This way, you have a view of the outside world, not just of more windows on the prison-like interior rings of the building. A savvy Pentagonian can tell more about job status from a person’s office number than from his or her title.

In the world of the White House, the great divide is between those in the West Wing (with the president, vice president, and chief of staff) and those in the Executive Office building next door. The EOB, as it’s known, is a magnificent building, erected in the late 19th century to house the State, War, and Navy departments. Its large offices have high ceilings, marble fireplaces, and balconies. West Wing offices, by contrast, tend to be small. (My West Wing office when I worked for then-Vice President Bush was so tiny that I had to step out of it in case I wanted a visitor to look at a particular picture on the wall.) But, as they say in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location, and no West Winger will ever receive sympathy complaining about cramped quarters.

The DC pecking order also determines where you sit on the president’s or vice president’s or secretary’s plane – or whether you’re on the plane at all.

Then there’s parking. First of all, do you rate a parking space? If so, how close is it to the door?
The power centers of official Washington all have special dining rooms available only to a select few. In the White House it’s the Mess, run by the Navy along the lines of an officers mess, whose members receive a monthly bill for the meals they and their guests consume. In the departments such a privileged eatery is called the executive dining room or the secretary’s dining room. If you’re not a member, it’s the cafeteria for you.

Finally, your importance (or lack thereof) is often advertised right on your person in the color of your security badge. Certain colors denote how close you can get to the big boss; others mean you can merely get inside the building and go to your desk.

Just as I gave some advice in how to get a DC job, I have some advice on what to do once you have it:

  •  Establish a wide circle of friends and contacts throughout the administration. This will help you do your work, to keep current on news and gossip, and to learn of job openings elsewhere that will boost you up the bureaucratic ladder.
  •  But beware of the people outside the administration who want to be your new best friends – lobbyists, reporters, and assorted hangers-on. Ask yourself: If the other candidate for president had won and someone else were sitting in this chair, would these same people be cozying up to him or her? To ask the question is to answer it.
  •  Be nice to everyone, especially the lower-ranking folks like guards, secretaries, and telephone operators, who see everything and can do a lot for you – or nothing at all.
  • The more senior career folk are a special challenge but not an impossible one. Before I went to Washington with the new Reagan Administration in 1981, I had fortunately read a book called A Government of Strangers by Hugh Heclo. It tells of the relationship between political appointees and career civil servants in our nation’s capital. Here are some nuggets from Heclo’s book that proved valuable guidance when I entered the Pentagon and had to deal with both civilian and military bureaucracies:
    • “Political executives do not need to trust everyone in the bureaucracy, but they need to trust some. Equally important, they themselves need to be trusted to some degree.”
    • “Political executives can usually do better by evoking conditional cooperation rather than by invoking their authority.”
    • “The US executive branch is a place for violinists, not kazoo players.”
  • I also appreciated the wisdom expressed by Chester Bowles, who held key posts in Democratic administrations of the mid-20th century: “Getting the bureaucracy to accept new ideas is like carrying a double mattress up a very narrow and winding stairway. It is a terrible job, and you exhaust yourself when you try it. But once you get the mattress up it is awfully hard for anyone else to get it down.”
  • Longevity has its rewards. You learn more tricks of the trade over time, and you might even outlast your bureaucratic foes. Toward the end of the administration, when few will consider uprooting themselves and moving to Washington to take a political appointment, those who have already been through the system are likeliest to be tapped for higher-level vacancies. And this gives them résumé credit for even higher jobs the next time their party is in power.
  • I close with some general advice: Go to Washington for the right reason: To help your president fulfill the mandate of the American people; to participate in history as it’s being made; and above all to learn. There’s not a wrong reason, but there is a not-so-right reason: To make yourself a celebrity and gratify those who may give you a job when you leave government. Every administration produces stars who get big book contracts, make fortunes on the speaker circuit, and land high-paying jobs in the media, law firms, and the lobby. This undeniable lure can corrupt those who (as was once said of missionaries in Hawaii) come to Washington to do good and stay to do well.

That is why the sound and admirable thing – observed in the breach, I’m afraid to say – is to go home once your day is done in DC. That way you can obtain the personal and emotional refreshment of living an ordinary life after living an extraordinary one, preparing for a day when you might travel back across the Potomac, all the more able to tackle the challenges of Washington for having left it.

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