On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
On Friday, November 22, 2013, conservative pundit David Brooks was on National Public Radio discussing the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. When asked for his appraisal of JFK, Brooks expressed his disapproval — but not of Kennedy’s policies, per se.
Rather, Brooks said that Kennedy “made politics too utopian,” which “led to a complete disillusionment.” He added that the 35th president created the expectation that politics is not merely a “negotiation of interests,” but a noble undertaking that will provide “personal meaning” to those who answer the call to serve.
Standing in my kitchen listening to the radio, it killed me to admit it, but Brooks was totally right. I know from experience that anyone who is — as I once was — considering getting into politics out of idealism, or hope, or any desire to make a positive difference should think again.
For while I am way too young to have heard his inaugural address the first time around, I was indirectly influenced by the JFK-inspired yearning to bear any burden, pay any price, et cetera et cetera — as countless people were and still are. Growing up as an Irish Catholic in Chicagoland, the reverence with which I heard my family members speak of Kennedy helped set me on a path to a career in politics and a job in a U.S. Senator’s office.
So, yes, Brooks helped me see it: I got into politics thanks to a Kennedy-esque, service-based desire to ask what I could do for my country, and I found myself surrounded by … not that.
Over the course of roughly ten years, I worked as an intern, then as an intern coordinator, then as a caseworker, and finally as a member of the press team. At every level, my idealism — and that of any stray fellow idealists I happened to come across — was thwarted. I kept coming back for more, kept the hope alive, only to find it thwarted in new ways with each new task or position.
As an intern, I discovered that it’s not enthusiasm and new ideas that are valued, but rather obedience and sycophancy and the ability to not so much get anything done as to simply be quiet and look busy.
As intern coordinator, I discovered that I wasn’t supposed to try too hard to provide exciting opportunities or to help anyone learn anything, but instead to cultivate that appearance of quiet busyness in the interns who were now doing the work I used to do.
As a caseworker, I discovered that all I’d really be able to accomplish, no matter how hard I tried, was to shuffle the papers around efficiently. I learned that most of my fellow caseworkers just let their work pile up, because they understood that it barely mattered anyway.
On the press team, I discovered that press releases are not intended to get information out, or to change hearts and minds, but rather to keep the elected official happy — which is to say, in front of the eyeballs of his voters — while creating the impression of action where there probably is none, because just about every bill is doomed to die a slow, painful, and maybe embarrassing death from the endless uncivil stalemate that is the state of play in Congress.