Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 30, 2016

A Friend in Politics


”If you want a friend in politics, buy a dog.”

That adage is sometimes attributed to Everett Dirksen (1896-1969), who represented the State of Illinois from 1933-1969 in the U.S. House of Representatives and then in the Senate. Dirksen is best known for helping write the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for staunchly supporting the Vietnam War.

Decades after Dirksen passed away, I arrived on Capitol Hill as a freshly-minted college graduate who wanted to make a better world — and thought he could. I’d done well in school, had read lots of books, and believed that I knew how the world worked. I was chock-full of moral and political principles, suffering from what the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz jokingly called “principle-itis.”

I thought that the problem with Washington was that politicians didn’t understand economics, history, or the Constitution. They needed to be educated by someone who’d read a lot of books. And I was just the person to do it.

Do I need to point out that being well-read is compatible with being incredibly naive?

I knew what books said about how American government worked, but I was unprepared for the reality. Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), who was Chancellor of Germany, put it best:

”Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”1

My first job interviews should have given me a clue. Because I was a libertarian, most of the interviews were with Republican politicians’ staff or Republican-leaning political groups. I wanted to tell them about freedom, economics, and the Constitution.

They only wanted the answer to one question: Was I a loyal Republican?

I always had trouble with that one.

Washington’s Moral Inversion

I eventually realized that it was how Washington worked. It worked that way because it was a winning strategy. Minor parties that wouldn’t compromise their principles stayed morally pure but couldn’t get anything done, at least in the short run. The major parties couldn’t remember their principles, if indeed they’d ever had any.

The situation causes a strange moral inversion that you wouldn’t think of unless you had seen it at your job every day. It’s this: In politics, morally serious people are considered untrustworthy, while amoral careerists are trusted.

Suppose that you’re a U.S. Senator who supports policy X. It doesn’t matter what X is: for example, war, abortion, or religious freedom. And you have two staff members:

  • One sincerely and enthusiastically believes in X. It’s why he wanted to work for you.
  • The other doesn’t care at all about X. He cares only about money, power, and career advancement. (This type is much, much more common than the sincere believer.)

Both of your staff members support X. Then, for some reason, you decide to stop supporting X and throw your support to the other side. What happens then?

The staff member who sincerely believes in X becomes unreliable. His commitment is not to you, but to X. You don’t trust him anymore.

On the other hand, the staff member whose only interest is in money, power, and personal advancement will support you as long as (a) you provide those things and (b) nobody else makes him a better offer. You can trust him, at least as much as you can ever trust anyone like that. Your flip-flop on policy X won’t make any difference to him. He’ll support your new policy position just as vigorously as the old one.

In Washington, loyalty to your boss and your party is almost everything. On one occasion, I was working for a libertarian political group and discovered that it was using pirated copies of software. For better or worse, I was enough of a team player that I didn’t report it to anyone except my boss. That, however, put me under suspicion because I was considered an honest person who might call the software company. The situation got uncomfortable enough that I shortly thereafter took another job. I was better off than a friend of mine, who reported embezzlement at a government agency and then was himself framed for the crime. (I have no first-hand knowledge of it, but I believe my friend.)

Books, Speeches, and Degrees

Most of the books “authored” by politicians are not written by them. Instead, they’re written by professional ghostwriters, and occasionally by the politician’s staff. The same applies to politicians’ speeches, though I think most people know that already.

And at least some of the advanced academic degrees held by political players are based on work that other people did for them. I know first-hand of one case and second-hand of another. Beyond that, it’s all rumor because nobody involved in academic fraud wants to admit to it.

First and Second Bananas

Presidents and vice-presidents of political groups were another oddity. I can’t explain it, but I saw it often enough to recognize a pattern.

The presidents of political groups were sometimes awful human beings who were only in it for themselves. They didn’t believe in what their groups were doing and they treated their staffs badly. But if big-money donors walked into the room, the very same sociopathic tyrants suddenly turned into the most likeable and idealistic people you ever saw. I witnessed that transformation several times.

The vice presidents of political groups were another story. They were often idealists, truly decent people who believed in what their groups were doing. They were the ones who did the work and got good-faith cooperation from others. They kept the staffs from quitting. Very strange.

And the U.S. Postal Service …

After a few years, I’d had enough of Washington politics and switched to a job as a news reporter. I covered several federal agencies, including the FBI, NASA, and the U.S. Postal Service. Some things would surprise you, and others wouldn’t.

At the FBI, all of my experience was positive. They seemed like an honorable bunch of people. There were certain things that they wouldn’t tell you, and certain things they wouldn’t do for you, but it wasn’t arbitrary. You were not allowed to go anywhere in FBI headquarters without an escort, and you weren’t going to interview any FBI officials without a public-affairs person being present. They knew I had a job to do, and I knew the same about them. I’m sure that there were and are bad apples, black ops, and all that, but the FBI people who I knew were aces.

The NASA people: What can I say? As you would expect, they were wicked smart. For what we think of as a “space agency,” they devoted a surprising amount of attention to climate change. One of them, James Hansen, had been a climate-change skeptic before I met him. He ended up becoming a climate-change activist and quitting NASA. That made an impression on me.

And the U.S. Postal Service? As you might not expect, there were a lot of very smart people at the USPS. Most of the people I interviewed worked on artificial-intelligence projects to automate mail management. Their technical ideas were very impressive; it’s just too bad that they never had the money to implement most of them.


  1. There is some doubt about whether Bismarck actually said it. According to Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it more likely originated with 19th-century lawyer John Godfrey Saxe and was attributed to Bismarck because he was famous. 


  1. I like it when you write like this and wish you’d do it more. I’d love to hear more stories like these. What I like most is your honesty, clearly separating what you know from what you suspect. Yet I can almost hear you whisper in a couple places “there’s much more here that I’m not telling!”

    • Thanks, Jim! I suppose we all have our stories. I think that my life is interesting, but I’m not always sure that other people would agree.

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