Looking back on a disordered life that I occasionally package as journalism, but that actually has more in common with the path of a large ball-bearing through a pinball machine, I don’t really think I will slit my wrists. Though it has its appeal. I mean, it’s unnerving to sail through the vastness of an unasked-for universe, round and round a minor sun, on a ball of rock with billions of people, none of whom are adults.
Let me explain. (Or maybe don’t. Some things it is better not to know. Like who or what is running the country.) Point is, I have now passed sixty-four years on this curious planetary golf ball. This fact carries an epistemological burden. You no longer believe that Mother knows best. You are Mother, which is scary.
When you are fifteen, or twenty-five, you almost per force believe that your elders know best. They must — mustn’t they? Doesn’t someone have to? Adolescent rebellion is a pose, but Henry Kissinger sounds like a Nazi bass drum and you figure he must know something.
At sixty-four, you don’t have a lot of elders. Besides, they mostly have Alzheimer’s. When you are older than our rulers, you take a dim view of august official turkeys. Dumb-ass kids. You look at a corrupt old hen like Nancy Pelosi pecking at bugs in the national barn yard and think, “Oh help.” Even if she is older than sixty-four.
Shorn of the ennobling aura of personal antiquity, they are straight out of a high-school yearbook, only all wrinkled, like raisins. Secretary of State Clinton? She’s just the pushy gal who made class president — moderately bright, OK legs at the time, never lived outside the US (unless you count Arkansas), speaks no foreign languages. Yes, she has a few credentials of a sort most people would hide: former First Basilisk and now retired housewife, but…but…she’s just an over-promoted twit, your generic Prom Queen who went to Princeton or somewhere. BFD. And she’s running foreign policy?
Now, journalism: It’s a weird gig inside the Beltway. (See? I assume you know that I mean Washington’s Beltway. And that I mean Washington, DC, not the real Washington out there with California and Oregon. It’s how we journalists think. It’s because we are the center of the world.)
The beltway is where everything happens, where the power is, the networks and Congress and L.A.s are. (Legislative assistants: bright kids on the Hill who have no idea what they are doing either.)
I somehow fell into this tar pit as a mid-rank journalist of no importance. To be a Journalist of Importance, you have to choose a clear ideological delusion, either Ann Coulter or Nat Hentoff, and screech and yell whatever your lock-step brainless readers want to hear. I just wanted to kill them all. In retrospect I think this a wise decision, but it was not career-enhancing.
As a nobody, but with columns in papers and magazines read within the Beltway, you meet or spew bile against or know of closely, or interview or suck up to, all sorts of people who shape policy. It gets to be a sort of closed club. It is strange to sit here in a small town in Mexico and realize that I know, however slightly or sometimes well, a fair proportion of the names that appear in the news.
Now, if this sounds like name-dropping, it isn’t — which is precisely my point. Reporters don’t meet Important People because we news weasels are meritorious, but because the press enjoys power all out of proportion to its worth. If people knew reporters as well as I do, they would emigrate. You could take a blind cocker spaniel with a low IQ and give him, her, or it a press card from the Washington Post, and in three weeks every pol in the city would kiss up to the beast, who would develop delusions of grandeur.
It’s the reporter’s disease: You come to believe that the Secretary of the Air Force wants a press breakfast with you because he respects the depth of your thought. No. He thinks you are an idiot, and in all likelihood loathes you, but he knows that what you write will show up in the White House clips.
Of course, the reporter may not be all that impressed with the Secretary either. The horrible truth is that the sharpers, martial Boy Scouts, and elephantine pundits who run the world are not much more impressive than the narcissistic twits who write about them. The trick is not to take yourself seriously, since nobody else does. I’m just an upper-middle-brow mutt who discovered, as the great Hunter Thompson said, that “journalism is a ticket to ride.” I rode. Ask not what you can do for journalism, but what journalism can do for you. DC is a boss-mama cow if you know how to milk it.
Think about that last sentence, because it is how Washington works.
However, what does matter is what I saw in Washington for thirty years: My high-school graduating class, up-brained a bit and down-moraled. None of us was up to the job of running a laundromat, much less a country. Some were slimier, others not stupid but so wildly attached to some loon ideology, or to themselves. There was an anchorwoman you might recognize who lived in Georgetown (no end toney) and spent her time slobbering drunk and falling over things.
So you meet all these people who start wars and steal anything they can lift and vote for bills they haven’t read, and you realize that they are messianic wingnuts or self-seekers and pork-gatherers. A fair few are lightning smart, but remember that most of the truly disastrous decisions are made by very bright people. Hitler was brilliant, but the Thousand Year Reich ended six years later with the Red Army in Berlin. How smart was that?
So once age and realism have eroded any expectation of adulthood or good sense, you realize that there is no hope. The limbic urges that power Washington are exactly those that you would find up some forgotten holler in West Virginia, at Jimbo’s Pool Hall and Rib Pit.
“Tell you what, Lou Bob,” says Jimmy Jack Fergweiler, leaning against the bar like a bridge getting ready to collapse, “We gotta smack hell out of them Islams or they gonna land in Wheeling. They got this book says we’re in-fiddles and they gotta kill in-fiddles. Gimme some change for the juke box. Ain’t heard Merle for a while.”
That’s what half of the Yankee Capital thinks, and just about how they think it though in marginally better grammar. But put them on CBS with a few details scraped up for authenticity, like where Tehran is, and the whole country thinks they know what they’re doing.
Dammit, I will slit my wrists.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.