AFTER 10 YEARS, I'm getting out. I'm giving up my reputedly glamorous job on Capitol Hill to go home to Massachusetts to work for the family shoe business.
My relatives were caught short by the news. They were too nicece to say so, but most clearly thought I was nuts. After all, my life has revolved around Washington since 1969 when, at the tender age of 17, I arrived here for my first Senate internship. I'd come back to work here after graduating from college. Even when I left to work for a paper in Connecticut the move had been temporary; I returned within a year to take a job as press secretary to an up-and-coming New England congressman. I'd labored in his behalf for four years, and suffered through the agony of a 1978 Senate campaign.
And now that my employer is in the Senate and I am in a position to enjoy the fruits of my labors -- less frequent elections, wider influence, bigger paychecks, better office space -- I am getting out.
If that doesn't make sense to outsiders, perhaps it's because they don't understand that government and politics are like a religion to people like me: Once you've lost the faith, you've lost everything. I've lost it all, and I don't have any real contribution to make in Washington anymore except bitterness.
Interestingly, my friends and coworkers on Capitol Hill haven't been surprised by my decision to leave the nation's power center to help sell shoes through the mail to men with wide-sized feet. In fact, many actually appear to envy me. Like me, they seem to have concluded that this is not a very good time to be in government, that maybe we don't belong here anymore.
It isn't easy leaving, of course. In many senses. I've grown up here, and not just politically. I met my wife here. We were married here.Our son was born here. But I think the move will be best for us, and it may, in some small way, be better for Washington.
Perhaps it's just be my own temperament or age, but Washington is not the place it was a decade ago.
The capital has always been the butt of jokes and complaints from the countryside. But in the past the gripes were delivered with a measure of good humor, and most people seemed to acknowledge that things like congressmen and civil servants were necessary evils. A decade ago, after all, it was important to be involved. Everyone had a cause, a role in determining the nation's course on basic issues of right and wrong.
But now the mood has soured. The jabs at government have grown more acid. The country has found itself confronted with problems -- energy shortages, inflation, economic stagnation -- that seem to defy government solution. Chappaquiddick, Watergate and the disgrace of innumerable congressmen from Wilbur Mills to Herman Talmadge have laid bare the failings of once respected leaders and institutions.
So today government is seen as ineffective and, by its very size, bad. The movements of the present are not against wars and hunger; they're against taxes and government spending and government itself.
There's a vindictiveness in it all. Every weekday, some small-minded, mean-spirited congressman rises on the floor of the House to whale away at some conspiratorial government agency that is, perhaps with the help of the KGB or Jane Fonda, trying to undermine the Free Enterprise System.And every evening, some pious network correspondent -- who earns twice any congressman's salary -- indignantly tells the viewers how some greedy senator is diverting stamp money from his office accounts to finance an abortion for his personal secretary.
It seems inconceivable today, for example, that any good could come from a congressional trip abroad.In the public mind, it is automatically a "junket," a waste of taxpayer's money, the only goal of which is an improved tan for the member of Congress involved. Every action is questioned, every motive suspect. Everyone seems intent on tearing down Big Government, without so much as a thought to the consequences.
At firs, most of us in Washington resisted the anti-government drive. But increasingly, with the country's, major problems going unsolved by the old agencies and institutions, resistance is flagging. Washington has begun to doubt is own worth. It's no longer a surprise when the anti-government forces win a political battle; it's a surprise when they don't.
So the tendency today for people in Washington is just to keep their heads down. For politicians, this has meant pandering to the organized lobby groups -- the right-to-life people, the tax revolutionaries, the gun lobby, business groups, the oil companies. Few officeholders seem to have the courage to speak up for their convictions any more. Every stand is qualified, every statement obscure. Party discipline has disappeared. The national legislature has been reduced to a collection of individuals, each covering himself, each sidestepping issues and commitments. The Congress now functions irregularly, and only under duress.
At cocktail parties, Washington talks now about real estate prices instead of justice. On the Mall, where massive demonstrations against injustice, foreign and domestic, used to make presidents tremble, life is much quieter. The gatherings that occur are either apolitical events, such as the papal mass, or futile protests like those of last winter's farmer tractorcade, which official Washington treats as little more than a nuisance. And when there is something like an anti-nuclear power demonstration, you see the same faces you did 10 years ago; it is like a reunion, laced with as much nostalgia as politics.
The lobbying that goes on now is all but invisible -- pleas for a revision of the anti-trust laws or a change in the tax loss carry-over or in a box at the Kennedy Center. The great throngs of people don't seem to come here anymore, figuring either that Washington doesn't care or is simply incapable of doing anything to help. The sweat-suited joggers on the Mall, assiduously improving themselves, seem much more representative of our time.
Capitol Hill staff people (and the rest of official Washington, for that matter) have responded to this turn of events in three distinct ways.
Some have convinced themselves that the trend to the right is part of the natural order of things and eminently correct. A friend of mine who used to be a Gene McCarthy Democrat now spends much of his time lecturing Republican women's groups on the virtues of the free enterprise system. Even the Washington Post, that bastion of self-righteous liberalism, has endorsed the Senate's decision to increase defense spending by $25 billion over the next three years.
Others -- a dwindling number -- have clung to their old faith, continuing to labor for the old social causes, believing still that the government can do good. The high-principled individuals tend to work for like-minded senators and congressmen, many of whom will doubtless no longer be with us after next November's elections.
Still others -- unable to convince themselves of the correctness of cutting back the school milk program to build more warheads and depressed at being outnumbered and powerless in this brave new Washington -- are desperate to get out. Most of my friends are in this last category. When we get together, we tend to spend much of our time recalling the good old days and lamenting the disintegration of the moral fiber of the Congress and the government.
If forced to choose the senator we most admire, most of us -- Republican and Democrat alike -- probably would pick Ted Kennedy. This is not because of his policies, with which we frequently disagree, but because Kennedy more than any other politician conjures up the image of the old Washington's legislative vigor and idealistic rhetoric. Even so, few of us hold out any great hope for the Kennedy presidential campaign as a return to Camelot or the Great society.
Even if Kennedy survives the many obstacles that lie before him, it seems inevitable in this political climate that a victorious Kennedy would move to the center, succumbling to the bland, egocentric doctrines of less government and less action.
If you believe this, as I do, there is ample reason to abandon Capitol Hill for the more humble pleasures of life in a New England suburb, working in a small family business. Our business sounds pretty smalltime to Washington ears, and it is. But the working conditions are pleasant, the financial reward is modest but adequate, and the business provides a real service to a significant number of people.
For those of us who have come to question the value of our service in Washington, this last point makes smaller enterprise a greater attraction. As a friend of mine said recently, it is more satisfying to build a chapel than to tear down a catherdral.