ONCE, WASHINGTON'S policy wonks quoted philosophers and utopians. Today's wonk, like the rest of his generation, is more ironic, less prone to idealism: He quotes Peter Frampton lyrics. On the other hand, his ambitions are loftier. Earlier generations of wonks merely dreamed of becoming secretary of state. Today's wonk dreams about becoming secretary of state and then resigning to make $5 million a year as a consultant.
There's more money around Washington for this generation of wonks. An aide who writes a significant piece of legislation can then go into private industry and make millions of dollars circumventing it.
A really top Washington policy wonk will get two invitations to a black-tie dinner given by -- well, let's call it the Council on Responsible Priorities. One will be sent to him at his office in one of the cabinet de-partments, and one to his home, owing to the fact that he was a CRP fellow prior to his appointment.
If our wonk accepts the latter invitation, he will get seated next to some young journalists and a few fellow wonks. The journalists will dominate the conversation with that imperial manner of theirs, and the conversation will be about that day's issue-blip: the budget talks, a resignation, an oil leak. Journalists get opinions the way most people get the flu; if one is going around, they catch it.
But if the wonk accepts the invitation afforded him because of his job -- his awesome power -- he will get placed next to one of those uncouth dolts from out of town who donate the money to support these dinners. In that case, the conversation will be mostly about commuting times, or, say, the current state of the tool business.
The choice is an easy one: Our wonk accepts the job invitation. Conversation will be inane, but he will be stroked like crazy.
The wonk arrives at the dinner too late for the crush of cocktails. He is good-looking, with his sandy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, but he is not too good-looking. Nobody is especially beautiful at these dinners. All the rewards for beauty are in New York or Los Angeles; in Washington it would breed doubts about your soundness. The wonk glances around the room and is comfortable with the fact that living in Washington means never having to change your hair style.
Bottles of unremarkable white wine have already been allocated sparsely among the settings. The plates, which have done service since the legendary CIO conventions of the '50s, are invariably bunched toward one side of the table. Each diner wonders if the water glass on his right or his left is his. Inevitably the wonk's neighbors each take the glass adjacent to his plate, and it is not until mid-meal that he will notice that the only free glass is on the other side of the centerpiece and miles out of reach. Ditto the dinner roll.
In lieu of conversation, everybody picks up the evening program and pores over the list of attendees, checking his own name first and then noting with satisfaction the galaxy of big names who are present. Some of the names are extraordinarily big, and from both sides of the aisle. The CRP is a centrist think tank, and of course our wonk is firmly moderate in his views. The whole point of being a moderate is that it doubles the field of possible dinner guests.
Glancing around the ballroom, one sees the unmoneyed aristocracy of Washington gathered in all its splendid blandness. These are the cautious careerist Anglo-Saxons who keep "Meet the Press" on Sunday mornings for background noise as they do their vacuuming. Let us be clear: These people do their own cleaning. They do not live along Foxhall Road or attend upper-upper dinners at the embassies, nor do they get written up in Regardie's. This set is one step down the ladder. They live in Mclean if they are Republicans, and in Chevy Chase if they are Democrats. They have a combined family income of between $70,000 and $150,000 (all Democratic families have two incomes; so do most of the Republicans).
They write for op-ed pages and policy magazines. They think they could outwit Buchanan if they could only get on McLaughlin. Often enough they are asked to sit on panels in front of C-Span cameras. (Their insomniac cousin in Nevada invariably calls the next day to congratulate them.) Once a year they get an invite from McNeil/Lehrer.
His dinner companions exactly meet the wonk's expections. Nearby sits a professor who once established a reputation for being a deep thinker. He quotes from The Federalist Papers as much as possible. On the other side of him is a middle-aged journalist who is a leading member of Washington's Club of the Gravely Concerned. Last week, he was worrying about the way television sound bites make it impossible for the nation to develop an informed electorate; today he is concerned about encroachments on the First Amendment.
Next to him is the good journalist's wife, an activist who comes to all these dinners and talks about nothing but her efforts to empower the people who are not invited. The one with his shirttail hanging through his fly is a senator, of course. He displays the gift which most politicians share: the ability to absorb infinite amounts of flattery.
Our wonk is pleasant, not combative and not so self-assertive that he would come off seeming ethnic (though, in truth, as a child he was Italian). When he was in his mid-twenties and still a Capitol Hill staffer, he picked up a specialty and in that way learned how to make himself useful. His wings were clipped a little by that decision (he had originally planned to specialize in foreign policy, which, pace the Council on Foreign Relations, is the policy problem of the leisure class). But his own selection has paid off. If you plan a lifetime in Washington, it's best to pick a groove.
He picked the congressional budget process as his specialty. He knows a lot about the budget reform act of 1974 and about rescission authority. He considers himself an intellectual (in Washington, even a person who writes policy memos on tank-part procurement considers himself an intellectual.)
Our wonk has a proposal, of course, which he has hashed out in several articles and a book that sold 2,341 copies for the Free Press. It involves restructuring the budget process, spreading the budget cycle out over four years and making it more rational. Not that the wonk thinks his propsal could actually be adopted. He is above all things realistic, and never zealous or utopian. Having come up with the reform is reward enough. Like all wonks, his messianism is easygoing.
Our wonk lives in a very nice house near the Cathedral in Northwest D.C. There are no novels around the house (he regrets the fact that he doesn't have time to read them), though you will find a few old copies of Smithsonian magazine and maybe a few unopened issues of The New York Review of Books. The furniture is not very expensive, but it is comfortable. The TV and VCR are of top quality, allowing the wonk to tape "Nightline" without any distortion or snow.
The courses at the CRP dinner come with amazing rapidity. The dinner is breast of chicken with some yellow sauce on it, accompanied by morose asparagus. The diner rolls will hold you until you can get home.
Conversation consists of bartering information with your neighbor. Those who are not witty in Washington meet their conversational obligations by supplying inside information. The rumors, often wrong, are nonetheless always believed, because it is pleasant and exciting to believe them. The diners are always on the lookout for news that will lead to someone else's political ruin; often there is the haunting fear that a brewing scandal might be minor.
Nobody gets drunk at these dinners. If a wonk were to get drunk, he might get argumentative, or worse, philosophical. Even in the most plastered state, however, he would certainly not get lewd. Unlike dinners in New York and Los Angeles, there is no sexual tension lurking when wonks dine together. As always, our wonk is engaged in an effort to steer the conversation back to his specialty -- budget reform. Given that this is Washington, he is often successful.
The senator does get drunk. Toward dessert, after his enunciations have lost some of their edge, the senator deludes himself into the belief that he is thinking. This will lead to a series of long sentences that nobody else at the table will be able to follow.
The table is relieved when the director of the Council on Responsible Priorities taps on the microphone and signals the start of the tributes. A stream of senators and prominent House leaders follows him to the podium -- giant, booming men with large heads and good features, inflicting their bonhomie on their audience.
Finally, amidst a symphony of sycophancy, it is time to introduce the president. The band lets loose and the president mounts the stage. The audience, so happy to be in his presence, near the nut of power, is positively giddy at this point. They admire him, for he is a moderate man, a Beltway creature, courageously leading the American people to see the necessity of his own reelection.
The president starts with the two jokes that are obligatory at every Washington gathering. The first involves laying economists end to end, and the second is a reference to Everett Dirksen's remark about a few billion here and a few billion there. After the jokes, the president declares, "What I am about to say is not fashionable in these times." Then he proceeds to string together a few of the most fashionable truisms that have ever passed human lips.
He continues: "We have come upon a crucial moment in American history, probably the most dangerous yet exciting moment in human affairs. There are some who would counsel that we stick our heads in the sand." (This, of course, is an absolute lie -- nobody ever counsels any such thing.) "Some would urge us to take rash, dangerous measures."
Having demolished his two straw men, the president boldly declares that he prefers a middle course. His speech drags somewhat, though, owing to the fact that the policy he is espousing lacks even a whiff of substance.
Then the president has an impulse of unfortunate charity. To share credit for the great work CPR has accomplished, he has decided to read out a list of the "foot soldiers" who made his administration possible. He asks people to stand when their names are read. A frenzy of mixed emotions sweeps the room. Everyone wants his name read, but nobody wants to actually stand up and perform this crass ritual of accepting glory. Politicians have no trouble playing out these vulgar dramas but do not understand that while wonks desperately seek glory, it is equally important that they not appear to seek it. As the names are read, however, a few of the honorees apparently feel no such embarrassment, and they rocket from their chairs, beaming unabashedly. Others make a more perfunctory effort, lifting their backsides a few millimeters from the seat as a nearby man slaps them on the back and a boisterous woman, infused with a pride of association, urges them, "Stand up." Our hero wonk merely smiles when his name is read.
The applause is perfunctory at first, but as more names are read, each member of the audience realizes that the chance of his own name passing from the president's lips is growing increasingly remote. The applause grows sharper; it acquires a brittle, envious tone. Finally, the last few names elicit nothing more than approving whelps from the people sitting at the honorees' table. The audience is now, for the most part, in a foul mood. Nobody is paying attention as the president finishes his speech with a rousing look into the bright future. There's some Reaganesque City on the Hill rhetoric, and pretty soon the band is playing and he is out the door.
The end of the president's speech is like a starter's gun, for now the most important section of the evening has begun. The director of the think tank gets up to officially bring the dinner to a close, but no one is listening. People are out of their chairs, darting quickly about the room, schmoozing and greeting.
This is the dance of our democracy. Seen from overhead, it might look random, as people dart from greeting to greeting. But the patterns are set, as the wonks of all policy areas bound from contact to contact. Our wonk exchanges a hearty hello with a famous Soviet scholar. Then he's off with his arm around a prominent editor. A few seconds later he can be seen mingling with the attorney general, and next he is chatting with a possible future employer across the room. A young apprentice wonk -- a version of our own wonk as he appeared 15 years ago -- detains him and engages him in five minutes of profitless conversation. (Washington is the only town in America where the middle-aged have more fun.)
This is what life is for: the delicious mixture of work and play, mingling and having access to the powerful. These happy snippets of conversation will keep him going for the next month of hard work, and then there will be another dinner, and maybe a higher stratum of wonks will seek him out.
Maybe, decades hence, he will no longer be a mere wonk. He will have become an institution, the way Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick are now. Every eye will be on him as he sits in a room. People will mention his presence to their dinner mates. He will turn down appearances on "This Week with David Brinkley."
Someone grabs a microphone and has the band strike up "God Bless America." Influenced by the giddy drug of each other's presence, the audience sings it -- it is one of those rare moments when patriotism is sincerely felt. In tomorrow's edition, The Washington Times will write that there was an "electrifying" rendition of "God Bless America." The reporter from The Washington Post will note only that it was "sung loud."
What a magical night it has been.
David Brooks, formerly a policy wonk, is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal. This essay is excerpted from "Beyond the Boom," edited by Terry Teachout, and published last week by Poseidon Press.