Veteran staffer Chuck Ludlam is about to leave Capitol Hill and cash in.
The counsel to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) is not moving to K Street to take a lucrative lobbying job after decades of public service. Instead, he and his wife are entering the Peace Corps to do development work in Senegal for 27 months, where the riches they seek are emotional and cultural, rather than financial.
Ludlam, 60, and his wife, Paula Hirschoff, also 60, describe the move as a "decision of the heart." Both served as Peace Corps volunteers from 1968 to 1970 -- she in Kenya and he in Nepal -- and view the experience as the best professional decision they ever made. Now, older, wiser and almost ready to retire, they are renting out their Cleveland Park house, putting their financial accounts on autopilot and gearing up to try it all again.
They know the physical hardship is likely to be greater this time around.
"You only live once, and you have to take risks like this," said Ludlam, who will leave his job Friday and depart for Africa in September. "You have to do unconventional things in order to survive emotionally in our hype-hype, rush-rush modern society. . . . I feel like I'm going out on top, which is not always the case in this town."
For more than 30 years, Ludlam has not just survived, but also thrived in the high-pressure world of political Washington. Since earning his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1972, he has served as a trial attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, counsel to three House and Senate panels, legal adviser in the Carter White House and as the principal lobbyist for the biotechnology industry.
He was involved in the enactment of Project Bioshield, legislation passed last year to foster the development and stockpiling of vaccines, antidotes and diagnostic devices that can be used to deter or help cope with a biological terrorist attack. Earlier, Ludlam helped write the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the law that governs congressional gifts and travel, and imposes restrictions on lobbying by former high level government officials.
While Ludlam enjoyed the work, he said he always missed the less materialistic, community-oriented life he lived as an agricultural extension agent in a village in Nepal.
"Those are hard values to sustain in Washington," Ludlam said. "The political game is a rough game, and it's gotten rougher over the years that I've been playing it. It's driven, it's based almost entirely on manipulation. Sometimes it can get very personal, and it's hard to maintain your personal values in the middle of all that."
He insists he is not cynical or burned out. "It's just time to do something different -- with my wife," he said. "And believe me, I wouldn't do this without Paula."
Ludlam and Hirschoff met in 1988 at a gathering of former Peace Corps volunteers in the Capitol Rotunda that marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who created the overseas service program.
It was Hirschoff who suggested recently that they return to a life they both loved.
"We both have loyalties to the institutions that have been good to us," said Hirschoff, who teaches composition and literature at the University of the District of Columbia. "Coming back to the Peace Corps, which both of us would say was the best time of our lives, seems to me quite logical. I always said I wanted to do it again."
They know it will not be easy. The average age of the 7,733 volunteers in the Peace Corps is 28. Only about 3 percent are 60 or older. (The oldest, Chuck and Marcia McBeath, 82 and 80, recently completed service in Kenya.) Ludlam and Hirschoff acknowledge their bodies will not hold up as well to physical labor as they did 37 years ago. And the intestinal bugs and other illnesses might hit them harder.
"I'm glad he's going to be there," Hirschoff said. "He can help nurse me back to health, because we know we'll be sick."
"We assume the physical demands will be substantial," Ludlam said. "But our anticipation is the cultural demands will be much more important. Learning both French and a local language. Finding a positive role in the community and living there as part of their culture. That will be the challenge. The physical demands I think both of us view as a very small price to pay for the opportunity to live in an African village and try to be helpful."