Shutdown Shit Show: Dysfunction and Debauchery in D.C.
When I heard about the government shutdown last Tuesday morning, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. America’s politicians are a spiteful lot, but stopping basic government operations? Cutting off the lifeblood of their own city? I figured that’d be so unpopular it wouldn’t even last a day. But Wednesday afternoon rolled around and the Republicans and Democrats had only dug in deeper. I called my friend Clyde (like every non-media figure in this story, his name has been changed and his face blurred to protect his anonymity), who was furloughed from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to inquire about the scene in Washington. “Everyone in D.C., myself included, got super-wasted all day Tuesday. I’ve just been hanging around the house today nursing a hangover, but I’m gonna go out again tomorrow. You should come down, it’ll be fun.”
I was skeptical. As a New Yorker I see D.C. as our square cousin from down South, and I’d never really had a crazy night there. The last time I was in town, I ended up at a party with a self-righteous girl ranting about the treatment of Muslim women in Sweden in one ear while a drunk nerdy guy insisted I take a pickleback shot with him in the other. Not exactly my idea of fun. But with all those idle 20-somethings, I started thinking maybe it could be a good time. And I was curious what was going through the minds of the furloughed. And how the shutdown was affecting D.C. as a city. I was still on the fence when I happened upon an article about the most recent government shutdown in 1995. It described how President Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky began on the second day of the shutdown, as interns filled in for furloughed staffers and Monica first touched Slick Willie’s willie. If any depravity lurked underneath D.C.’s buttoned-up exterior, the shutdown was the only chance I had to witness it. I booked a 7:30am Bolt Bus for Thursday morning.
On the bus ride, I pondered how this shutdown was revealing the disconnect between “Washington”—shorthand for the political elites who run the country—and Washington, the city of over 600,000. “Washington,” i.e., Congress, the White House and their allies in the elite media, was playing fast and loose with the lives of Washingtonians, nearly all of whom rely on the government for their livelihood. Clyde and the other members of the vast army of federal employees who form the backbone of the government were being hung out to dry by “Washington.” Even D.C.’s lawyers, lobbyists, think tank staffers, and private contractors depend on a functioning federal government for survival. They may not be on furlough now, but how long could they go without being affected?
Make no mistake: the shutdown crisis was entirely self-inflected by “Washington,” it wasn’t foisted upon them by circumstance. Ostensibly it was started by Ted Cruz and other conservative Republicans who refused to fund the government if the ObamaCare health law went into effect as planned on October 1st. But it seemed to me part of a longer series of battles in Congress: the sequester fight in March, the Syria fight in September, the upcoming debt ceiling fight. “Washington” is engaged in a long-term partisan war on the national stage, and this bit of Republican gamesmanship simply reached new heights of drama in the political theater. From what I could see on TV, “Washington”—the Congresspeople, the cable news anchors—was relishing the high-stakes crisis. Washington, on the other hand, not so much.
When I arrived at Washington's Union Station at 11:30am, it was far emptier than usual. There was a smattering of middle-aged white guys with badges dangling from their person, but not nearly as many as I was used to seeing there. How empty was the rest of Downtown D.C.? I headed outside to meet up with Clyde and find out.
But as I tried to cross the street to where we’d agreed to meet, I was blocked by a cop. “Can I just cross this street?” I asked.
“Absolutely not! There’s a suspicious package at the SEC building,” said the agitated cop, his hand hovering around his gun. I looked past him and saw a sea of fire trucks and police cars, sirens wailing.
“What about this street?” I asked, pointing to the perpendicular street.
“What’d I say?! Just turn around!” screamed the cop. I reluctantly complied and texted Clyde a new meetup spot. As I’d been coming to D.C. in the last decade, I’d noticed that “Washington” had increasingly turned downtown Washington into a militarized zone full of barriers and armed policemen. The current crisis clearly only made things worse, as I’d learn in dramatic fashion later in the day. To be sure, the city faces serious terrorist threats in a post-9/11 world, but I got the sense that “Washington” really gets off on the pageantry of guns and sirens.
This suspicion was confirmed when a motorcade whizzed by ferrying some “Washington” denizen to the Capitol in a tinted black Chevy Suburban, two police cars with sirens blaring leading the way. In D.C. you can tell how much of a bigshot someone is by the size of their motorcade, with President Obama’s 45 vehicles (plus motorcycles) proving he’s at the top of the pecking order. One wonders if the motorcade is a legitimate precaution to protect the politician, or a piece of political theater to protect his ego.
When I finally met up with Clyde, I asked him how his furlough was going. He told me he was still recovering from Tuesday’s bender. The shutdown officially started at midnight Monday evening, but BLS workers went into the office until 11am on Tuesday, at which point they headed to a nearby bar for whiskey shots and continued drinking into the night. He’d emailed around about bars to go to today and a friend from USAID told him about on a bar in DuPont Circle offering $2 beers to furloughed employees. But between my desire to get a taste of shut-down Downtown D.C. and Clyde’s lingering hangover, we decided to hold off on drinking for an hour. Besides, 11:45am was too early to drink we thought – though we soon learned that many in this town didn’t agree.
We started our tour of downtown Washington with the Capitol, figuring that with all the Congresspeople we were seeing pontificating on TV and the high-stakes negotiations that must be taking place, there had to be some action over there. We were way off base. Here’s what we found at the steps of the Capitol:
Clyde explained to me that Senators, Representatives and their staffers usually travel through special tunnels to get into the Capitol from their office buildings, and were particularly likely to do so during a crisis. And in a bit of Orwellian logic, in the midst of this shutdown crisis the Capitol is closed to visitors—due to lack of funds from the shutdown. Members of Congress were holed up in their domed bunker conducting secret, completely fruitless negotiations and TV interviews in which they exacerbated the crisis by bashing each other. They were hanging out in “Washington” and couldn’t be bothered by the pedestrian realities of Washington, with its gawking tourists, kooky protestors, and dowdy office workers.
Walking back down Capitol Hill, Clyde and I continued our exploration of shut-down Downtown Washington by checking out the headquarters of various government agencies. First up was the hulking modernist form of the Frances Perkins Building, headquarters of the Department of Labor. The Capitol was positively bustling in comparison to this place. We saw zero people there. Not 100, not 50, not even 10—zero. I half-expected tumbleweeds to roll down 3rd Street NW.
Making our way west, the scene played out over and over again. Bureau of Labor Statistics: no one. Department of Health and Human Services: abandoned. Department of Commerce: not a soul.
Downtown Washington was a ghost town. No interns carrying overloaded Starbucks trays, no clean-cut young men in off-the-rack suits, no prominently displayed ID badges, and no portly tourists bedecked in red, white, and blue. So where was everyone? My suspicion was that they were out drinking, which is why we were headed to the bar with $2 beers for furloughed employees that Clyde’s friend had recommended in DuPont Circle, a posh residential neighborhood in Northwest D.C.
The bar was called Pizza Paradiso, and when we got there it wasn’t terribly crowded. Only a few older gentlemen in government-issue gray slacks sat by us as Clyde ordered his $2 beer. “Just need to see government ID,” said the bartender. When Clyde slapped down his BLS ID card, the bartender handed him an “Essential Pale Ale.”
“The government may think you’re a non-essential employee, but we think you’re essential,” he joked. “Hey what’re you guys doing tonight?” he asked as I nursed my full-price beer. “I’m loving these $2 beers, maybe we’ll come back here,” replied Clyde. “Are you kidding, like half the bars in town have drink specials. Tonight at Duffy’s is gonna be huge—I just saw it on Facebook.” We pulled up their Facebook page on my phone and saw the post letting us know that, “ShutDownFest All u Can Drink for $15 Starts at 10pm tonight!”
“So that’s tonight, but where else should we go right now?” I asked.
“Well Tuesday was crazy here, you should’ve come through then. But today everyone’s day-drinking in the neighborhoods where they live,” he replied. “Regular government workers can’t afford to live here in DuPont though—it’s more lawyers, consultants, think tankers—and they’re not on furlough. You should try Columbia Heights, there’s a lot of young government employees there—it should be live.”
So after downing our beers we hopped a cab to Columbia Heights. When we got out of the cab, I finally felt like we were in a major American city rather than the set of an apocalypse movie. Outdoor bar patios were filled with young, hip Washingtonians. Each bar had a different drink special: El Chuco offered half-priced margaritas, Red Rocks Pizzeria had $5 Dark & Stormy’s, Meridian Pint sold $3 drafts.
But Clyde remembered that nearby watering hole DC Reynolds had a sick outdoor space in the back, so we hoofed it over there. Even the dark, dank indoor bar at DC Reynolds was packed when we entered.
When we got to the back porch, there were day-drinkers as far as the eye could see. It was barely 1pm on a Thursday in the nation’s capital, and it might as well have been Rush Week at the Sigma Chi house.
I waded through the young, hip (certainly by D.C. standards) crowd and sat down at a communal table across from a couple while Clyde grabbed us beers at the bar.
“I’m over at the FAA, she works at USDA. What agency are you furloughed from?” asked the guy.
“I’m just visiting my friend who's off from the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” I replied.
“You should’ve come Tuesday—this place was insane!” the girl told me excitedly. “They literally ran out of glasses, people were drinking out of Solo cups! You couldn’t move back here.”
But my new female friend thought today’s crowd was still very solid, and she was something of an expert—her bar-searching methods were far more sophisticated than Clyde’s e-mail to a few friends. “Every morning of the shutdown I’ve been checking DCist and Washington Post to see what day-drinking spots they recommend for furloughed workers. And then I google ‘deals for furloughed employees DC’ for good measure.”
The guy explained, “We’ve been using Capital Bikeshare to get from bar to bar. What else are we gonna do? I wanted to go to a museum or a monument, but they’re all closed. Then I thought of a day trip to Shenandoah National Park—but of course that was closed too.”
“This week’s been really fun and the weather’s been nice, but I think we’re gonna run out of steam by next Wednesday,” the girl said. “If we go two weeks unpaid, I’ll be really stressed about money. We definitely won’t be at the bar.”
“Yup, at that point it’s Netflix and Jack Daniels in our PJ’s time,” the guy said.
Wondering what other furloughed workers here were thinking—and where the hell Clyde was with my drink—I excused myself and made my way to the bar. I found Clyde chatting up two young women sipping white wine, who he introduced to me as Mary from the FAA (the agency is big enough that she had no idea who the guy back at the table was) and Jessica from the Commerce Department.
“These girls have been drinking here since Noon,” announced Clyde. “I think they opened this place up.”
“No, our Happy Hour started at 11am today,” interjected the bartender. “And a lot of people were here, though not these two. Happy Hour ends at 9. Here are your BOGO tickets.” BOGO, in the parlance of D.C. Happy Hours, stands for “Buy One Get One [free].” The bartender wasn’t checking government IDs, letting even friends of the furloughed like me get in on the deal.
As we talked with Mary and Jessica, I could see their two hours of drinking and their three days of furlough had taken a toll. Whereas the couple I’d been talking to was still in the “happy drunk” phase of the shutdown, these ladies had firmly moved on to the “angry drunk” phase. They wouldn’t run out of steam next Wednesday—they were out now.
“They won’t let me in my office, or even let me check my work email!” Jessica unloaded. “So I’m constantly checking Washington Post and the Office of Personnel Management on my phone to see what’s happening—will I get back pay? Am I getting benefits during the shutdown? When will it end? I even have push notifications set up. Fortunately I just paid my rent for October, but I need to know if I’ll be able to afford November. Not to mention my student loan payments. Some of my friends from the East Coast went home to save money, but I’m from Texas so that’s not happening. I actually filed for unemployment, but I doubt they’ll give it to me.”
“My friend on the Hill told me it’s definitely not gonna end until October 17—that’s when the debt ceiling has to be raised by,” noted Mary, before adding, “But who knows if that’ll even end this thing? Maybe we’ll just default on our debt. These days, anything can happen in D.C. My friend also said she doesn’t know if they’ll give us back pay since we weren’t working. Um, hello we weren’t working because you wouldn’t let us work!”
At that point, I noticed a piece of paper stuck under Mary’s wine glass. I looked closely and realized it was her resume. Mary intercepted my gaze.
“That’s right, I’m looking for a new job,” declared Mary. “You don’t understand—since the sequester kicked in in March, I’ve already had to take an unpaid day off every other week.”
Jessica chimed in with, “Some of my friends at Defense actually have a day of mandatory unpaid leave every week.”
Mary continued, “That lost income has forced me to take a second job as a hostess for a speed-dating company.” While my mind was chewing over how insanely dark the Washington speed-dating scene must be, Mary burst out, “And now days, maybe weeks without pay? Fuck it, I’m done! I can make more money in the private sector. And besides public service, the major appeal of working for the government was job security—but now that’s completely out the window.”
“Who do you blame for the shutdown?” I asked the three furloughed workers around me.
“That’s a no-brainer,” Clyde replied instantly, “—the House Republicans. They’re trying to hold the government hostage until the Democrats scale back ObamaCare.”
“Exactly right,” Jessica said. “It’s all the House Republicans’ fault.”
After a moment of thought, Mary weighed in. “No,” she said somberly, “it’s the House Republicans, and the House Democrats. And the Senate Republicans, and the Senate Democrats. And the White House. I blame all of ’em. If any of these people actually cared about us, we’d be at our desks right now.”
Granted I was drunk and sweating my balls off in the 85-degree heat, but I began to think maybe Mary was onto something. Was the villainy really limited to House Republicans, or was the entire political system at fault for this sad state of affairs? As I was turning this over in my head, Clyde announced he too was sweating his balls off, and suggested we head back his apartment where we could shower and change before the evening’s festivities. So we said goodbye to Mary and Jessica, grabbed our BOGO tickets and rode back to Clyde’s.
While Clyde hopped in the shower at his place, I flipped on CNN to check in on “Washington” as I changed. Wolf Blitzer was hyping Dana Bash’s upcoming “exclusive one-on-one interview” with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the midst of the shutdown crisis, but you could tell he couldn’t quite get it up for this. After all, while Monday night’s “Countdown to the Shutdown” had a midnight deadline that ensured it would be captivating television, the shutdown was now starting to drag on, with no end in sight. Harry Reid heaping blame on House Speaker John Boehner one extra time wasn’t going to change that. Blitzer was content that CNN would at least be talking to the second-most powerful Democrat in “Washington” rather than some average Washingtonian who was out of a job, though he wasn’t excited.
But just then, Wolf eagerly announced there had been gunshots fired at the Capitol! Reports of multiple gunshots near the Hart Senate Office Building! The shooter—or shooters—may still be on the loose in or near the Capitol! The screen filled with the dozens of cop cars swarming the Capitol and the law enforcement officials getting out of them with their guns drawn, as the wail of police sirens blasted from the TV speakers.
Capitol police were telling lawmakers and their staffs to “shelter in place,” and Wolf was really whipping himself into a frenzy now. Forget the Shutdown, this was the motherfucking LOCKDOWN! A real-time crisis! Lawmakers in peril! Guns! Maybe terrorists?! And the sweet, sweet sound of those police sirens! When CNN cut back to Wolf in the Situation Room, I swear I could almost make out a boner bulging from his suit pants. It was at least a semi-chub. Then Wolf and Little Wolf were replaced by Dana Bash, who breathlessly told us, “Senator Reid just told me there’s been one injury.” She was cooing like the cheerleader who the star quarterback winked at during the big game. And then back to the police cars at the Capitol and their siren song.
But as I listened more closely to the sirens, I realized their sound wasn’t only coming from the TV. Clyde’s apartment was less than half a mile from the Capitol—where we’d been a mere 3 hours ago—and I was hearing the police cars rushing there through an open window. Given that the shooter was possibly still on the loose, I was more than a little freaked out. I texted my loved ones to tell them I wasn’t in any danger, even though I was far from certain it was true.
Clyde, fresh and clean after his shower, stepped into the living room and looked at the screen. “Another shooting, huh?” he casually remarked. “Ah well, let’s hop a cab back to DC Reynolds—those BOGO tickets are good ’til 9.” He explained to me that after Washington’s collective shoulder shrug following the D.C. Navy Yard shooting a couple weeks back, he figured occasional gunfire downtown was the new norm in the nation’s militarized capital. I pleaded with him to wait until we were sure the shooter wasn’t on the loose to return to the bar, and he reluctantly relented.
Finally a little after 3pm, Wolf announced that the Capitol Lockdown had been lifted. With this crisis over, Little Wolf appeared to no longer be at attention, but Big Wolf could at least console himself with the morsels of information about the shooting he was receiving. It was apparently a car chase that had ended with the driver getting shot by law enforcement. There was no tie to terrorism so far. And the driver was female.
At this point, CNN cut to some Senators who’d been stuck outside the Capitol during the Lockdown going back inside the building. There was Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey (D), with an extra spring in his step. And Roger Wicker of Mississippi (R) smiling ear to ear for the camera, like he was walking the red carpet at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
These denizens of “Washington,” I realized, were as turned on by this whole incident as the CNN anchors. “Sure some woman died, but gosh wasn’t that exciting! The guns! And the sirens, don’t forget the sirens! And now the cameras are on ME!”
When we got back to DC Reynolds at 3:30, I expected the shooting at the Capitol to have put a damper on the party. But it was going stronger than ever as Clyde and I returned to our spots at the outdoor bar. While Clyde exchanged our BOGO tickets for two beers, I asked the guy sitting next to us—who I quickly learned was on furlough from the Department of Education—if he was shaken by the shooting at all.
“The first thing I thought of when I saw the shooting,” he recalled, “was, ‘Oh shit, this’ll delay the vote on the bill to give us back pay.’” His female companion, a 4th-grade teacher in the D.C. public schools, agreed that the shooting was no big deal. I asked her if she’d been affected by the shutdown in any way. After all, D.C.’s city government was still funded even while the federal government was not.
“Of course I’m affected,” she replied immediately. “I had to cancel our field trip to the zoo. My kids are worried. They’re asking me, ‘my Mommy's on furlough—what does ‘furlough’ mean?’”
“I’m on a softball team with a mix of federal employees and private contractors,” the Education Department guy began. “It was super awkward at our game yesterday. The contractors are still working and they were looking at us with total pity, like ‘those poor sad sacks on government furlough.’ Fuck those guys.”
I excused myself for a much-needed trip inside to the bathroom. While waiting in line, I checked my phone for updates on the shooting. It turned out the woman who’d been killed was unarmed, had a history of mental illness, and was carrying her 1-year-old child in the car.
When I got out of the bathroom, I looked up at the TVs playing CNN. I figured there’d be a story about this woman—maybe with an angle about D.C. law enforcement's itchy trigger finger against an unarmed mother, or what America can do to help its mentally ill and stop the bloodshed they keep getting involved in. Nope. Instead I saw Dana Bash conducting her much-hyped “exclusive one-on-one interview” with Harry Reid. As Reid pounded away at John Boehner for the umpteenth time, the topic of the shooting never came up. Now that the excitement of the Lockdown was over, this dead mentally ill African-American woman was of no interest to “Washington.” It was back to the Shutdown. As Mark Leibovich explained in his wonderful expose of D.C.’s systemic rot, This Town, the Washington news cycle is no longer measured in days—it’s now measured in minutes. A stalemate was taking hold in the political game as both parties refused to give an inch, so the Shutdown lacked the theatrical fireworks of the Lockdown—but at least it was a crisis.
When I got back to the bar, Clyde and I ordered some food and more beer. As 6 o’clock rolled around, those private sector workers our friend from the Department of Education had complained about started arriving. Attractive, slickly-dressed Washingtonians poured into the backyard. But our friend was wrong about their snooty attitude—they were mixing it up with furloughed workers. After all, they live in Washington, not in the rarefied airs of “Washington.”
Needing a change of scenery, Clyde and I settled up the bill and headed to U Street, a trendy recently-gentrified neighborhood where Clyde’s friend Farhad, furloughed from the Environmental Protection Agency, was having his 30th birthday. We had a couple hours to kill before Farhad’s party started at Shutter nightclub, so we bar-hopped. Every place—Solly’s, El Centro, La Society—was packed. Yet every bartender told me, “This is wayyy bigger than usual but Bro, you should’ve been here on Tuesday—it was epic!” I swore to Clyde I’d smack the next person to give me shit about not being here Tuesday. But Clyde wasn’t listening to me. Instead, brimming with liquid courage, he was using, “So... are you on furlough?” as his pick-up line on the ladies of Washington—to limited effect.
We finally got to Shutter at 10. We ordered two Manhattans at the crowded downstairs bar, where Clyde’s pick-up line successfully drew in a furloughed Interior Department employee from California named Liz.
Like many young Washingtonians, Liz was earnest and clean-cut. Her normal weekday routine was Morning Joe and then work, but the shutdown had sent her into full-on party mode. “Every day feels like Friday Happy Hour—it’s like Groundhog Day,” she explained. “I keep thinking, ‘this isn’t real’ but then it is. I’ve been sleeping in ’til noon. I tell myself I won’t drink today, but then of course I do.” After 17 hours of being awake and 8 hours of drinking, I ordered a Red Bull to try and stay alert while Clyde and Liz downed more cocktails.
When Farhad the birthday boy arrived, the festivities moved to the upstairs dance floor. With strobe lights flashing, house music blaring, and masses of attractive people grinding, this was already the wildest nightlife I’d ever seen in D.C.
Clyde and Liz hit the dance floor while I nursed my Red Bull at the bar. Farhad introduced me to his friend John, a Department of Energy researcher who was one of the lucky few to actually be working this week, before joining Clyde on the dance floor.
“You made it onto Schindler’s list, eh?” I joked.
“Man, the shutdown is still hanging over the office like a cloud,” replied John. “No one knows how long we have until we’re on furlough too. Everyone’s distracted, no one’s motivated—it’s a very nihilistic vibe.” I excused myself to go to the bathroom, but there was a line. Waiting with me was an uptight-looking girl who told me she worked as a private contractor at Lockheed Martin. As I was chatting with her, a visibly drunk Liz, Farhad and Clyde cut in front of us and rushed into one of the stalls together.
“Word around the office today was we might get furloughed next week,” she revealed, a look of concern crossing her face. “With our counterparts in the government out, the work is just drying up.” Between her and John, I was realizing that no corner of Washington could escape the clutches of the shutdown, the fear of the dreaded furlough.
Just then, Clyde, Farhad and Liz emerged from their stall, wiping their dripping noses. As I stared at them, another group of three hopped into the stall. And a bathroom attendant—who I’d been too tired to notice before—was holding the door open for them. Was this a place for government workers to blow off some steam, or Club Prive at the Bellagio? Did they provide clean hundred dollar bills in there as well?
After finally relieving myself, I went back to the bar and chugged my lowly legal stimulant like a chump. I spied Clyde on the dance floor—he was making out with Liz! They were grinding and really going at it. The action was getting so hot it moved to one of the perimeter banquettes. It started escalating to what sex educators call “heavy petting”... when a Shutter employee broke up the fun! I couldn’t hear what he said, but I swear it was something like, “No handjobs in the club! Until the U.S. defaults on its debt in two weeks. Then anything goes.”
Clyde triumphantly joined me at the bar, his hand outstretched. “Dude you look really tired, here’s my key. Leave the door open. We’ll be back there in a bit.” But when Clyde and I looked back at the dance floor, we noticed Liz was now grinding with someone else. Upon closer inspection, it was a woman. “I’ve gotta go deal with this,” muttered Clyde.
I asked the bartender for my check and he brought me the receipt to sign. Pen in hand, I was taking awhile to calculate the tip in my exhausted, drunken state when Clyde put a sweaty palm on my shoulder. “So your competition—what’s her deal?” I asked.
“His deal is he’s named Justin.” As I turned to face Clyde, both of our gazes were drawn to Liz, who was holding hands with her new transvestite friend. And then Justin and his clean-cut Californian companion vanished down the stairs, headed out into the warm Washington night.
After a moment spent processing this spectacular cockblock, Clyde dejectedly grabbed his house keys back from me. “Let’s go home,” he said, and we walked outside and hailed a cab.
As we said our goodbyes the next morning back at Union Station, I asked Clyde if he’d be partying again this afternoon. Adopting the tone of the bartenders telling me about the epicness of Tuesday, he cracked, “Bro, it’s Furlough Friday—you’re damn right I’ll be partying!” He was actually going to sleep off his hangover and then play video games, two opportunities to escape to fantasy worlds where he actually had some control over his life. But he’d probably go out at night. After all, with no end to the shutdown in sight, the bureaucrat bacchanal was sure to continue into the weekend.
“Washington” has long been dysfunctional. Now the cancer has spread and Washington is dysfunctional as well. Clyde and the furloughed drinking friends I made during my trip are mere pawns in a chess game played by “Washington” on a national scale. These earnest young souls, attracted to this city by the allure of a stable job doing some good for their country, are drinking and drugging and screwing away their sorrows for now. They’re not looking forward to the hangover in the morning when they have to face the ugly new reality of life in the nation’s capital. Economic uncertainty, with a touch of random violence, have created a creeping nihilism in traditionally earnest, can-do Washington.
Meanwhile “Washington” lurches from crisis to crisis. It’s addicted to crisis. Who can even keep track of them anymore? Sequester! Syria! Shutdown! Lockdown! And it’s all building to mother of all crises—the debt ceiling, with the possibility of a debt default! The creeps in the real Congress make the politicians in Veep and House of Cards look like role models. For all the backstabbing and venality on those shows, at least bills get passed and the government is funded.
In the eyes of “Washington,” crises are exciting. To Congresspeople and their cable news anchor buddies, crises are moments when the stakes of the political game “Washington” loves so much are highest and the spotlight shines brightest on D.C. It’s political theater at its finest. But to the average American—even the average well-educated American—these crises aren’t that interesting. They just pop up, boil for a few days, and then fizzle out. Even at the height of these crises (and we’re smack dab in the middle of peak-Shutdown), most Americans couldn’t definitively tell you what they’re really about. Wolf Blitzer and the rest of “Washington” are getting their rocks off, but the average American would rather be watching Monday Night Football or Dancing with the Stars—or House of Cards. It’s no wonder Congress’s approval rating has plummeted to a near-all-time-low of 11%.
You could say Americans are doing a poor job as citizens by not paying closer attention to each crisis. But they’re actually right to not bother wading into the details. Because these crises aren’t really about the specific issues at hand, they’re just grist for the crisis mill. Take Syria, a supposedly do-or-die national security decision splitting Congress and the White House. Does anyone even know at this point what’s going on with the chemical weapons inspections over there? Does anyone care? Like the abstract financial securities Wall Street deals in, the raw material doesn’t really matter: A missile strike? A defense budget bill? They’re the politicians’ subprime mortgages and Argentinian debt: just some shit to package into something that can be traded and profited off of.
And now, in a truly postmodern moment, the grist for this crisis is... the entire government. You know, the actual entity that does things like protect our environment, break up monopolies, cure diseases, and research new energy sources. “Washington” just cannot be bored with that kind of rinky-dink stuff. These guys feel they’re playing “The Game,” an epic power-struggle worthy of Game of Thrones. Just to prove to you I’m not reaching here, Ted Cruz literally Tweeted at one of his wavering Republican colleagues in the days leading up to the shutdown, “@SenMikeLee #YourMove.” Attached to the text was a picture of a fantasy-themed chess board.
One can imagine an eager young staffer handing Cruz a white paper from the Commerce Department and being scolded with, “South American trade policy? Who gives a flying fuck?! I just dickslapped Chuck Schumer in The Situation Room. And that puppy’s goin’ virallll!!!”
The narcissism is mind-blowing. An entire city, nay an entire nation is at the whim of a few oddball sociopaths like Ted Cruz and Harry Reid. Even the aforementioned bankers—vulture capitalists who know how to take advantage of a crisis more than anyone—have had enough of the shutdown and are urging politicians of both parties to cut it out. Markets are getting jittery, other countries are wondering about our system’s political stability, and Wall Street worries that a debt default might very well bring about another recession. When bankers speak, American politicians, especially Republican politicians, almost invariably listen—they know where their bread is buttered. And yet this time... the parties appear no closer to a deal as the clock ticks toward the debt default. Why? Because “Washington” is having too much goddamn fun! The drama! The cameras! The guns! The sirens!
The phrase “last days of Rome” comes to mind. A corrupt elite clinging to power, deploying the military to secure its rule over the capital city. Running out of money to pay the state’s workers. Gladiatorial games (OK, pencil-necked old white dudes Boehner and Reid trading barbs on cable news isn’t exactly Maximus fighting a tiger) punctuated occasionally by the violent death of an innocent civilian (e.g., the mentally ill woman at the Capitol). Moral decay among the populace. Like the rulers of ancient Rome, “Washington” is offering its people mere bread and circuses, but they’re running out of bread and the circus isn’t that exciting.
Rome is burning. But where is President Obama in all this? He’s not the first President to deal with right-wing whack jobs. When President Eisenhower saw that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was getting out of control with his Communist witch hunts on Capitol Hill, he made a public relations push against McCarthy that ended with McCarthy getting censured by the Senate. And while President Clinton couldn’t prevent the shutdown of 1995-96, he was at least talking to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (when he wasn’t talking to his new favorite intern). There are dramatic things that could be done to end the shutdown if Obama really cared about the government and its employees: explaining the situation to the public directly, adeptly playing the media game so that Republicans are seen as the only ones to blame and have to back down, perhaps even negotiating with the Republicans on the debt ceiling—anything. Instead, Obama seems to be totally disconnected from the situation—occasionally giving an interview where he blames the Republicans, but mostly holing up in the White House with his insular group of advisers.
As my Bolt Bus pulled out of Union Station, I heard a faint sound in the distance. I could barely make it out, but I could swear it was President Obama... playing the fiddle. No wait—it was just a siren.
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