Several years ago, the District of Columbia was deciding on a new motto to put on its license plates, and one of the ideas suggested was "Washington, D.C.: don't Believe the Hype." After dutifully fulfilling my obligation as a government concentrator to spend at least one summer within several miles of the White House and wear a power tie every day to work, I would sooner do all of the reading for my classes this fall than live in that would-be state.
It's not that Washington isn't a good place to visit or to do an internship. The Institute of Politics would never lie to you, would it? How could D.C. remain the Gov jock Mecca for every University in the country if it didn't deliver? As thousands of Harvard students will tell you, a job there can be awesome. For one thing, the entire city is run by people under age 30, so professionals who actually have important things to do can be duped into taking you seriously--even though your job is only picking up your boss's dry cleaning.
"I work at the Cato Institute" can mean you wine-and-dine ambassadors daily, or you fill out name tags for $3.65 and hour. This is especially effective because most people don't know that the Cato Institute is just some house in your average neighborhood that holds "forums" by crowding lots of people into the living room.
For my job, I interviewed a number of career civil servants (and let me digress to say that if you have a lot of talent and ambition and want to victimize yourself in an occupation with inadequate pay--but have rejected elementary school teaching because it has some slight shred of respect--then the civil service is for you), and these people, many of whom actually run entire agencies, took me seriously. Truly gifted interns for whom truth is no handicap will find that worthwhile political connections are only a few business cards away.
But the City of a Thousand Points of Light has an inescapable problem. The flight from Harvard "Diversity-Is-Us" University to Washington is like moving to South Africa. And this is the part the Office of Career Services doesn't tell you about. The poverty stricken city of Washington is overwhelmingly Black, and all those well-dressed and powerful professionals running our country--the people you see on television and read about in the paper--are white. They don't live in D.C., of course. They live in neighboring Arlington, Va., Bethesda, Md. and the infinite well-to-do entirely white suburbs only a Metro ride away.
It's not like this is anything striking in a city. New York and Los Angeles are like that as well. Subways bring in the suburban whites who fill up the downtown office buildings, and then take them back as they flee the city with the sunset.
But this is Washington, D.C., and it's supposed to be different. Isn't that why Congress banned the slave trade in the District long before the Civil War--to make the country look good? But the race/geography/income line is so sharp and clear that naive (but increasingly cynical) liberals such as myself can't stand it.
AND WHAT IS WORST is not that the situation exists--as I said, it's hardly surprising--but that of anywhere it should and could be different in the District.
Washington has very limited local autonomy, and the amount of control Congress has over it is both amazing and highly undemocratic. So what does Congress do with this power? does it use D.C. as a test area for innovative education reform? Does it use its unique financial and political power to renovate the city, to keep up the infrastructure? To practice badly needed health care reform in a small experimental area as a prelude to national action?
No. Congress spends its time overruling local ordinances allowing same-sex couples legal rights. It haggles over the city's appropriations, not because it has a better idea for Washington, but simply because it can, no matter illogical it is for a senator from Utah to be telling D.C. how to run its local affairs.
Congress is constantly blamed in this election season for neglecting the problems of the inner cities in New York and Los Angeles--as well as the concerns of small town America and our nation's farms. But Washington, D.C. is under the direct control of Congress. And if anyone has the right to complain it's the people who live there. Congress' neglect of the problems that are under their jurisdiction shows the real political neglect practiced these days by our leaders.
Those without enough votes to oust a representative--and remember D.C. has no voting member in Congress--have little control over their future. The residents of our capital have to rely on the generosity of voters in other states who probably don't even realize that they are deciding the fate of Washington, D.C. when they choose their representatives.
This summer the Democratic Convention gave us some pretty powerful speeches on the need for racial equality. We heard Jimmy Carter plead for attention to human rights. And Bill Clinton endorsed Washington's bid for statehood. But in spite of some finely orchestrated platitudes, the party of Congress has done remarkably little for an area over which it has so much control. Members of Congress and their staff have been shot near their offices, and ambassadors robbed near their embassies, but you haven't heard--and you won't hear--anyone advocating some help for this poor, murder-a-night city.
GOING TO D.C. is billed as practical education for government concentrators. And this is certainly true--especially if you want to learn about the responsibility government has to complete all of its tasks, not just those which are politically expedient.
So next summer get a job in Washington. It's a learning experience.
Thomas S. Hixson '94 spent the summer interning at Government Executive magazine in, of course, Washington, D.C.
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