(Host) Once again, a presidential election is upon us; and commentator Olin Robison reminds us that, in electing a president, we are electing more than just one person.
(Robison) A few weeks ago I attended a dinner party where, as far as I could tell, I was the only Democrat. At some point rather late in the evening, another guest asked me in a loud voice whether I “liked” John Kerry. This guy was clearly trying to pick a verbal fight, which I really didn’t want to get into. But I was trapped.
“It is a totally irrelevant question,” I replied. “It doesn’t matter in the least whether I do or don’t like Kerry — or Bush, for that matter.” I went on to say that each new President, of whichever party, brings approximately four thousand people into Washington, and they displace an equal number.
“And,” I went on to say, “I am completely satisfied that I will ‘like’ the four thousand who come in with Kerry more than I ‘like’ the current crowd.” I am not a fan of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith-Perle-Ashcroft team. And that is putting it mildly.
I do think it matters greatly who is President and what that person believes. But the U.S. government is a large and profoundly complex undertaking; and, in my opinion, a “presidency” must be seen as that large collection of people. The President is indeed the maximum chief, but there are a host of other chiefs whose choices and decisions impact us greatly.
Many of the chiefs in the Bush administration have been there before — not all that long ago, in fact. Many never left the city, although very few held government jobs during the Clinton years. And, if Kerry should be elected, many who were in office during the Clinton years will return.
There are another 25,000 to 30,000 people on Capitol Hill serving as congressional staffers.
And there is what is frequently referred to as the permanent government — the civil service, the military and the Foreign Service. When one adds all the embassies and foreign representatives, that number becomes very large indeed — several hundred thousand.
The “permanent government” should not be confused with the permanent Washington establishment, which is the locus of much money and power, of big law firms, lobbyists and hundreds — even thousands — of national associations and organizations. It is arguable that these people are the real power in our nation’s capital. Politicians and administrations come and go; these people and the powerful interests they represent do not. They stay. Many are rich. They know each other. Many, even most, play both sides of the street, being careful to support both parties, always on the winning side, never, ever, far from power.
When I first lived in Washington a long time ago as a young man, I was almost intoxicated with the sense of our ability to change the world. And we did change a lot – but probably not as much as we thought.
My hope, since I don’t “like” the current crowd very much, is that they, too, will in the end have changed America less than they think. I suppose we will just have to wait and see.
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.