The siren song of Washington, D.C.
Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
After he almost won the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, Rick Santorum was instantly dubbed a “Washington outsider,” even an “antiestablishment candidate.” It was a convenient tag that made it easier for reporters to keep all these strange Republicans straight: Newt Gingrich, Washington insider; Michele Bachmann, mad housewife; Mitt Romney, establishment prom king; Jon Huntsman, moderate hair guy; Rick Santorum, antiestablishment Washington outsider. Like that.
But Santorum’s titles were rescinded as quickly as they were bestowed, for the press discovered certain details that undercut any claim he might have to be a Washington outsider, such as the fact that he lives in suburban Washington and has for more than 20 years. Rick Santorum has spent his entire career either working in government—his first job out of school was as an assistant to a Pennsylvania state senator—or, when he wasn’t working in government, working to get another job in government, as he is doing now. And when, in 2007, he found himself once again without a government job, having been booted out of the Senate by a large majority of Pennsylvania voters, he took a bunch of government-like jobs right here in his beloved hometown of Washington.
This is where the press smelled an insider.
“After Santorum Left Senate,” headlined the New York Times, “Familiar Hands Reached Out.”
“After Senate,” echoed the Washington Post two days later, “Santorum turns Washington experience into lucrative career as consultant, pundit.”
Both stories reported roughly the same set of facts. Though a man of modest means when he left the Senate, Santorum managed to make more than $1.3 million during the 18 months covered in his most recent financial disclosure form, from January 2010 to August 2011. We can assume that 2008 and 2009 were similarly lucrative. He did this in the magpie manner of the well-connected and semi-famous Washingtonian: He got a TV deal with Fox, joined a corporate board, became a “fellow” at a think tank, sometimes hosted a radio talk show, and collected retainers from a couple of companies run by political friends. It’s nice work if you can get it.
I found myself strangely touched by the stories of Santorum’s recent wealth, for they certified that he wasn’t a “Washington insider” in any pejorative sense, at least by my libertarian lights. He’s just another Washingtonian of a particular type: the anti-Washington Washingtonian—an AWW, a contented resident of the nation’s capital who has based his career on his loudly declared disdain for the nation’s capital, particularly the federal Leviathan residing there. The AWW campaigns against Washington, catalogues its harmful effects, extols alternatives, and contrasts it with the “real America,” which he vows to liberate forever from its depredations—while never admitting that Washington is the very thing that makes his life worth living.
Am I exaggerating? We should allow for love of family, friends, household pets, and professional sports; for religious faith, too, in a few cases like Santorum’s. Still, we AWWs lead a life of moral dissonance and intense though half-buried psychological conflict.
Life in most of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs is an idyll. Crime is low and unemployment negligible. Average income is very high, to be spent in sprawling malls that glitter with expensive goods and restaurants that offer sophisticated and pretentious fare. There are no fewer than three theater companies devoted to Shakespeare, and most of the museums charge no admission. Public transportation is excellent and heavily subsidized. Winters are mild. In summer the streets are dappled and cooled by the leaves of oak, ash, tulip. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the azaleas in spring. The public schools, being stuffed with the children of well-to-do high achievers, are rated the best in the country, and the private schools are innumerable and various. It’s a cushy life. You’d love it, really.
And it should go without saying, and it usually does, that all of this ease and pleasantness is traceable to the vast amounts of money redistributed in transaction costs to people who advise, bully, study, condemn, write about, or work directly for the federal government, which in turn gets its money from productive Americans who live elsewhere, without regular access to the gardens and museums of Washington, D.C. The federal government is oversized, wasteful, intrusive, high-handed, careless, confused, and unfair, and everyone in Washington gets to reap the benefits.
Including, of course, the people who want to drastically reduce the government’s size, indeed impoverish it, on the grounds of strongly held principle. Yet AWWs know too, somewhere in their roiling souls, that if they achieved their object the quality of life that they and their families enjoy would suffer beyond measure. With a limited, unbloated, cut-capped-and-balanced federal government, they might even be forced to move elsewhere.
But elsewhere is what they escaped to come here. Elsewhere, few people think about electoral politics unless they’re forced to, and even fewer bother themselves with public policy—the daily meat of the AWW. Here, by contrast, the AWW finds an entire subculture of like-minded friends and associates, all of them well-educated and most of them presentable.
Nowhere else on earth is there so high a concentration of self-conscious, ideologically committed conservatives and libertarians. Here, the AWW is among his own. Elsewhere, he’s a freak. Here the conversation flows like honey: “Did you see Ag’s new adjustments to the out-year recalibration formula for nonrecourse loans on consumable grain processing? It’s a total mindf—!” Elsewhere, in a place populated by real Americans—well, what on earth would he find to talk to all those people about?
So we all conspire to make work for one another, in an endless daisy chain of ineffable employment. Look again at that list of jobs that the Times found so newsworthy in Santorum’s disclosure statement. He describes the services he rendered to his employers like so:
“Advise company as member of board of directors”;
“talk show host”;
“energy policy consulting services”;
“legislative policy consulting services”;
“consulting in connection with insurance processing policy.”
Not an honest day’s dollar among them, yet somehow, through the mysterious workings of Washington alchemy, it’s all priced at $1.3 million. A friendly interpretation would be that Santorum has found his calling as a “knowledge worker” in the Globalized Information Age, selling his brainpower rather than the simple brawn necessary to do one of those manufacturing jobs he hopes, as president, to revive. A less friendly interpretation . . . would be less friendly, and would involve the phrase “hocus-pocus.” Whichever: A professional profile like Santorum’s could only exist in the gold-lined belly of Leviathan.
There’s an irony to Santorum’s status as an AWW. He became a Washingtonian by unseating an incumbent in 1990. The centerpiece of the campaign was a TV spot showing a pleasant suburban house. A voice said “there’s something strange about this house.” It was where the incumbent lived, yet it wasn’t in his home district. It was in “the wealthiest area of Virginia”! The incumbent had gone native!
It’s the same area of Virginia where Santorum has lived since his victory in 1990. Inevitably, in 2006, his opponent leveled the same charge when Santorum couldn’t clearly explain who lived in his legal residence, a house in Pennsylvania (answer: sometimes a niece and her husband, sometimes nobody). But he couldn’t rebut the charge that the Washington suburbs were now his home, for all practical purposes.
Is this evidence of hypocrisy? I don’t know. What I do know is, it was a tacit, and touching, acknowledgment that after 20 years as an AWW, he was no longer suited to life in the real America.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
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