The agony and the ecstasy of Washington

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010

The victors of 2010, by and large, ran against Washington. They pledged to take back the country, to boot out politicians who had become creatures of Washington.

Now, they get to live here.

Morgan Griffith ran for Congress from southwest Virginia promising to "bring our values back to Washington." Voters liked that idea, and when Griffith arrives in January, he says he'll bring along "a legislative crowbar" to yank open the process and "change the rules, because folks want us to do things differently."

Asked if he can think of anything he's looking forward to about actually living in Washington, Griffith, a Republican and the majority leader of Virginia's House of Delegates, said: "No. Nothing." Then, after a long pause, he added, "Although - I've never been to a Redskins game and I've always wanted to, live and in person."

That can be arranged, said David Bass, president of Raptor Strategies and a longtime Republican political and media strategist.

"He might find himself in a couple of nice skyboxes before too long," Bass said. "These new members who ran against Washington will play Mr. Smith for a while, but there is a structure, a way of doing things that has to be respected. New friends will be very important to them."

The history of Washington is one of periodic political convulsions that usually involve candidates portraying the capital as a den of iniquity, an ethical swamp where cynicism and corruption undermine all that's good and pure about democracy and America.

In this fall's campaigns, candidates from both parties aired TV ads in which they stressed their love of hometown values and their loathing of Washington's ways. As Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) often told interviewers, "Connection with Washington is anathema right now with the American people."

But as the Republican revolutionaries of 1994 have demonstrated, there's something about coming to Washington that alters even the purest of intentions. Many of the 73 GOP members of Congress who won office in that huge anti-Washington electoral sweep are still here, as lobbyists, strategists, lawyers and other cogs in the city's political apparatus.

"More than half of the members of our class who ran with self-imposed term limits reneged on that pledge," said Bob Barr, who was elected to the House from Georgia in 1994 and served four terms. "It's very easy to be co-opted by the system."

"They run against Washington calling it a cesspool and discover that it's really a hot tub," said Craig Shirley, president of Shirley and Bannister, a conservative public relations shop based in Alexandria. Shirley came to Washington in 1979 as an aide to a renegade Republican senator, Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, and quickly learned that even if you arrive as a rebel, if you love politics, you've found a home.

Although it's true that, for the most part, politicians check in to Washington but don't check out, "they haven't necessarily become corrupted," Shirley said. "They're here because they are marinated in politics, and a lot of them just love it. They put roots down, their children go to school here, and soon enough, it's home."

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