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The Ivy League Wow-Effect

POSTCARD FROM WASHINGTON

By Chana R. Schoenberger

So I was at the White House a few weeks ago. (As a Washington native, I'm entitled to this sort of blatant name-dropping.) The President was announcing his new framework for Internet commerce to a crowd of industry executives and lobbyists in the ornate East Room. As always, he was late. Packing in the maximum number of constituents left only a few square feet for the press pool. As we waited for the President and his entourage to make an entrance, the journalists jostled for a good view of the podium.

Washington journalists have their own version of the Freshman Questions: "What's your name? Where do you work? What do you cover?" When a guy from a small technical newsletter publisher introduced himself, I had to reciprocate. I said I was Chana Schoenberger, from the Wall Street Journal, and that I was general-assignment, meaning that I didn't have a regular beat.

"Wall Street Journal?" he said, with a wry, slightly embarrassed smile. "Never heard of it."

Suddenly, I had this overwhelming feeling of deja vu. Where had I heard this sequence before? What other personal information had the power to make someone feel sheepish, even inferior?

"You go to Harvard, really? Don't aim too high or anything."

As the military band started to play "Hail to the Chief," I realized I had discovered the key to impressing people in Washington. Among professionals here, where you work conveys the same level of prestige as Ivy League status does among college students.

As the political center of the nation, Washington is filled with wannabes and hopefuls, all jostling for position like the press pool in the East Room. Many of those who graduate from college and move to Washington know very little about politics or power, and they tend to judge others by easy-to-measure criteria.

According to this theory, a person's job is a simple indicator of their place within Washington society. Consequently, if I work for the Wall Street Journal, I must be important. Everyone in my bureau must also be important, and my boss, the bureau chief, must be one of the most important people around. The same goes for employees of the White House, staffers for well-known Congresspeople and journalists at any of the top newspapers, magazines and other news organizations.

Interns--the status-seeking professionals of the next cohort--are equally prone to this particular brand of prestige-by-association. You notice it at intern parties, which are usually held in tiny Georgetown row houses and feature cheap beer.

Tell a guy from Princeton you're working for your congressional representative and you get, "Oh, cool. That must be so much fun." Introduce yourself as a White House intern, and you'll provoke an involuntary "Wow!" from your conversation partner. Even well-known non-profits and interest groups, like Common Cause or the AFL-CIO, will impress people. But say you're from the Center for Democracy and Technology (an Internet civil-liberties group) or some other small lobbying organization, and you might as well have introduced yourself at a Head of the Charles party as somebody's friend from Arizona State.

"Oh, really? What sort of work do they do over there?" the other intern will say, quickly turning the conversation to the best local dance clubs. Snobbish? Definitely. Of course, this view of Washington life is seriously flawed. As a college intern, I'm about as unimportant as they come, no matter where I work. Some of my co-workers are quite influential--a whole crowd of them just got named among the city's top journalists by Washingtonian Magazine--but one couldn't logically make a blanket statement about the whole bureau. Nevertheless, public-relations firms call my Journal voicemail nonstop when I'm covering a story. Three separate CEO's called--on their own initiative--to comment on the Internet commerce framework.

You can see where this is going. It's the Ivy League wow-effect every Harvard student has encountered, only worse. Just as not all smart gogetters go to Harvard, not all those who matter in Washington work for big-name employers.

The newsletter writer I met at the President's press conference works for a company which publishes dozens of newsletters. Hundreds of people read his article on the new Internet commerce regulations. Even if you subscribe to a powerbased theory of relative importance, the you-are-where-you-work theory still fails. Bob Dole, who still wields tremendous lobbying power, is now a private-sector lawyer; John Huang, of campaign-finance-scandal fame, was a low-level political appointee at the Commerce Department.

There's no solution to this problem. New Washingtonians, fresh from other parts of the country, will continue to attach status to employers whose names they recognize. How else to sort out the confusing alphabet soup of federal agencies and interest groups?

But the process is amusing to watch. And, like the perennial Harvard problem, it spawns new and innovative solutions. I suppose I could adapt my standard response to "How'd you get into Harvard?" for use at the Journal. Next time people ask me how I got the job, I'll just say I slept with the editor.

say that you're from a small lobbying organization, and you might as well have introduced yourself at a Head of the Charles party as somebody's friend from Arizona State.

Chana R. Schoenberger '99, a Crimson editor, lives in Adams House.

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