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Washington Is Not a Swamp

Ignore the lazy conventional wisdom. The nation’s capital is the most public-spirited city in the country. By far.

The New Republic has been at its best when smartly countering lazy conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom doesn’t come much lazier than “Drain the swamp!”—Donald Trump’s battle cry in the closing days of the 2016 campaign.

Staff writer Timothy Noah took this lie head-on. Yes, Washington has its hustlers and grifters, Noah wrote; but if you look closely at the kind of people who are drawn here for a career, you invariably find dedicated and self-sacrificing people who turn down jobs for a lot more private-sector money and are here to make a difference. “Washington is a much more powerful magnet for public-spirited people who want to make the world a better place than it is for sleazy people who want to drown the globe in carbon emissions and multigenerational family trusts,” Noah wrote. This is TNR at its best.

—Michael Tomasky, editor, The New Republic

Nobody has ever liked Washington, D.C. Even before it was built, Thomas Tredwell, an anti-Federalist New York state senator, called it a “political hive, where all the drones in the society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land.” Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott Jr. wrote in 1800 that “most of the inhabitants are low people, whose appearance indicates vice and intemperance.” Charles Dickens saw in 1842 a “stream of desperate adventurers” who “make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal … that sensitive and delicate-minded persons shall be kept aloof.” Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner saw Washington as a permanent dumping ground for unemployable workers, calling it, in their 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, “the grand old benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless.” Henry Adams remembered the post–Civil War city as “a mere political camp,” and his 1880 novel, Democracy, portrayed Washington as a stewpot of corruption.

In 2013, the journalist Mark Leibovich brought this critique up to date in This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital. The book presented a deft portrait of the nation’s capital as a playpen for rich lobbyists, camera-chasing members of Congress, self-regarding TV and print journalists, and assorted myopic status-seekers that Leibovich called, collectively, the Club. “Washington may not serve the country well,” Leibovich wrote, “but it has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself—a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.”

The book’s title was well-chosen. In a memorable 1983 Harper’s profile of the lobbyist Anne Wexler, the journalist David Owen pondered the phrase’s finely wrought phoniness:

“This town.” That’s how influential Washingtonians like Wexler almost always refer to their city. The expression perfectly embodies the way they like to think of themselves, as commonsensical pragmaticians for whom politics is a folksy calling that falls somewhere between growing alfalfa and playing a professional sport.

The writer and Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal lampooned the phrase in his satirical 1995 play, This Town, of whose existence Leibovich learned only as he was finishing up his book. Blumenthal demanded that Leibovich call his book something else, even though a title can’t be copyrighted, because his play was “the origin of the phrase and concept,” which wasn’t exactly right. That prompted Leibovich to answer, in his book, that Blumenthal’s play was “forgotten by nearly everyone, in ‘this’ or any town.” That wasn’t exactly right either; an L.A. Theatre Works recording is readily available on Audible. (It’s pretty good!)

The Blumenthal-Leibovich spat mimicked what Leibovich lampooned in This Town: two Club members exchanging barbs over something that mattered only to the Club. The quarrel was covered by NPR and The Daily Beast. It received more attention, in fact, than Barney Graham and Kizzmekia S. Corbett of the National Institutes of Health received in January 2020 when they built the blueprint for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Publicity eventually caught up with these two federal workers. For instance, Lawrence Wright’s 2021 book, The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid, an excerpt of which ran in The New Yorker, mentions Graham, and a December 2021 Time magazine article names Graham and Corbett among Covid researchers who were “Heroes of the Year.” But the story took a year or two to break through, no doubt because, after four decades of being told Washington can do nothing right, the public was slow to believe it could create anything useful. What began as a conservative bromide (“Government is the problem”) hardened into an apolitical truism (Washington “worked splendidly for Washington itself”). Graham and Corbett didn’t fit the paradigm. They weren’t members of the Club.

Heroes of the “Swamp”
Robert Pelham Jr.

Robert Pelham Jr. was a clerk at the Bureau of the Census from 1900 to 1929, where he survived Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to resegregate the federal workforce. While at Census, Pelham invented two machines that vastly improved the speed and accuracy of the bureau’s work: an apparatus to paste slips of paper onto data sheets, and a tallying device.

Leibovich presented This Town as a wised-up panorama of Washington. But it was a panorama only of those Washingtonians eager to be interviewed by a reporter for The New York Times: members of Congress, A-list lobbyists, party hostesses, cable news personalities, the more pushy staffers on Capitol Hill, and the odd White House aide. I would put their number, generously, at 3,000. (The maximum crowd capacity at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, attended by pretty much anybody who wants to go, is 2,670.)

Here’s the problem with Leibovich’s Washington. His survey excluded virtually all the metropolitan area’s roughly 283,000 civil servants; virtually all its 172,000 military personnel; most of its 36,700 D.C. city workers; and most of its 591,000 do-gooders working for nonprofit organizations. That’s more than a million people, living in and around a capital whose population is 670,000. Let’s call them the Asknots, in memory of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural plea, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The Asknots are the people I’ve known as neighbors in Washington over four decades. (I’m not rich enough to rub shoulders with the Club, except for some of the cable-ready journalists.) Active-duty military personnel are a little harder to know, because they live on military bases, but I met socially my share a dozen years ago while I was living with a Pentagon “dazdee” (deputy assistant secretary of defense, spelled DASD). As a tribe, Asknots are upright, kind, capable, and public-spirited. There are exceptions, of course. But in general, Asknots are exactly the sort of people you like to have as neighbors. I’m fortunate to count many as friends.

Broadly speaking, the Asknots are heirs to the wonky New Deal liberals who flocked to the city during the 1930s. Like them, the Asknots came to Washington wanting to make the country and the world a better place. They aren’t ascetics; they live comfortably, most of them, and, if they wanted, many could likely quit their jobs and join the ranks of America’s one percenters. Most don’t want to.

The Asknots have been described variously as “the New Class,” as “permanent Washington,” and, more ominously, as the “Deep State,” though not all of them draw paychecks from the government. The more fanatical among the MAGA faithful—the sort who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021—judge the Asknots their enemy insofar as they tried not to let Donald Trump and his legions trample over existing structures of democratic governance. The insurrectionists aren’t wrong. It was the Asknots who held the government together, during four long years under Trump, with chewing gum and baling wire. In many ways, they saved the Republic. The Asknots are why I can never understand all those people out there in the Real America who look at me pityingly when I say I’m from Washington and tell me what a trial it must be to live among all those awful people in that dreadful swamp.

Can we clear something up? Washington isn’t, and never was, a swamp. It isn’t a literal swamp. A tributary of the Potomac called Goose Creek, later renamed Tiber Creek, ran along what is now Constitution Avenue. Sewage was dumped into it, it became a public health hazard, so in the late nineteenth century it was covered up. The Potomac itself silted up in the mid–nineteenth century due to farming upriver; some flooding resulted, but that was resolved through construction of the Reflecting Pool and the Tidal Basin. (The stretch of the Potomac from D.C. to the Chesapeake Bay is tidal.) Such civil engineering was routine in major cities during the nineteenth century; if Washington is built on a swamp, then so are New York, Boston, Chicago, and just about every other metropolis built around or near a major waterway.

But more important, it isn’t a metaphorical swamp either. The gross excesses of America’s money culture are much more pronounced in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston. Power struggles take place in Washington, but they take place, too, in Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Santa Fe, and everyplace else where humans dwell. Sneering at the untutored masses, something MAGA types imagine to be D.C.’s favorite pastime, is actually far less common in Washington than in any major city I can think of; the vice that usually takes its place, a certain piousness about the deeper wisdom of the American People, is, by comparison, pretty benign. Yes, there are cynical corporate lobbyists looking to corrupt the tax code, but there are also plenty of decent folks lobbying their hearts out for more affordable housing or cleaner air and pulling down maybe $80,000 for their troubles. Washington is a much more powerful magnet for public-spirited people who want to make the world a better place than it is for sleazy people who want to drown the globe in carbon emissions and multigenerational family trusts. (The sleazy types can usually do better elsewhere.) Washington is a place where people, in Robert Kennedy’s famous reformulation of George Bernard Shaw, “dream things that never were and ask why not.” Some of those dreams are plausible, and some are not. But I’ve never seen anyplace else where so many idealistic people allow their visions of a better society to govern their everyday lives. There isn’t much point coming here if you don’t.

Heroes of the “Swamp”
Frances Oldham Kelsey

Frances Oldham Kelsey worked more than 45 years at the Food and Drug Administration. During her first month on the job in 1960, she reviewed a drug application for thalidomide. Resisting heavy pressure from the drug industry, she denied FDA approval. Within two years, reports surfaced that thalidomide caused horrific birth defects.

Washington, D.C., is named for its first president, but it was built mostly by its thirty-second. Even a casual visitor won’t fail to notice the profusion of government buildings dating to the 1930s and 1940s. Really, the city should be called Rooseveltland, D.C. Between 1930, three years before Roosevelt assumed office, and 1950, five years after he died, the District of Columbia’s population rose from 486,869 to its all-time peak of 802,178. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Alden Stevens reported in Harper’s that more than 5,000 new federal workers were arriving in the city each month. Many of them were forerunners of today’s Asknots.

Then as now, the Club didn’t know what to make of them. The Club in those days consisted not of green-room habitués but of blue-blooded hostesses known as “cave dwellers” who traced their district lineage back to its earliest days and were appalled to observe that New Dealers arrived at their soirées not in dinner jackets but in business suits. “Professors,” sniffed a 1936 society column in The Saturday Evening Post, “are too preoccupied with important matters to spare ten minutes for changing their clothes…. Even hostesses perennially in search of the necessary extra man rarely consider drawing upon this army of alphabetical agencies.”

Who were these aliens? “They were social workers, farm economists, liberal lawyers, union organizers,” the longtime television newsman David Brinkley wrote in his delightful 1988 history, Washington Goes to War,

all of them political chiropractors eager to get their thumbs on the national spine, to snap it and crack it until the blood again flowed outward to all the extremities of American life, returning it to health and prosperity.

This in-migration of do-gooders never stopped. After World War II, the federal workforce stabilized at around two million, which is about where is remains today, but the Asknots kept coming, sometimes rotating in and out on fellowships or other temporary assignments, sometimes working for the area’s burgeoning nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector, sometimes working in D.C. local government, and sometimes working for government contractors. (Many more people today work on government contracts and grants than work directly for the federal government.)

Kizzmekia Corbett was one of these migrants. Corbett is a 36-year-old African American woman from Hillsborough, North Carolina, who decided in high school that she wanted to be a scientist. She was educated at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she majored in biological sciences and sociology, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where in 2014 she received her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. She wrote her doctoral thesis on human antibody responses to dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease common in tropical and subtropical climates, and traveled to Sri Lanka to perform clinical research with children who suffered from the disease. After she graduated, Corbett came to Washington to be a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. She came to work with Barney Graham.

Graham “understands vaccinology better than anyone I know,” according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who recruited Graham to the Vaccine Research Center two decades ago. Corbett worked with Graham starting when she was an undergraduate, as part of a program at NIH to identify gifted young scientists from disadvantaged backgrounds. After she returned to Graham’s lab as a postdoc, he put her to work building spike proteins and testing the resultant antibodies on mice. Well before the Covid pandemic, “she was really doing a lot of the basic work on coronaviruses,” Graham told me.

The foundation for Corbett’s efforts was laid in 2013 when Graham and Jason McLellan of the University of Texas, who’d worked previously with Graham at NIH, designed vaccines, neither yet approved, for a childhood disease called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). This work, and subsequent work with Moderna on the Zika virus, turned out to be so relevant to designing a vaccine for Covid-19 that it took Graham, McLellan, and Corbett only 24 hours after China posted Covid’s genetic sequence online to produce their vaccine blueprint. Two months later, Moderna started its clinical trials.

Pfizer began clinical trials two months after that. Graham, McLellan, and Corbett didn’t work directly with Pfizer, as they did with Moderna, but William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development, was strongly influenced by Graham and McLellan’s earlier research on RSV. As it happened, Gruber and Graham were old friends—college roommates at Rice University in the early 1970s and later colleagues and occasional co-authors at Vanderbilt’s vaccine research center in Nashville. After 2013’s RSV breakthrough, Graham had jumped with his wife into their car and driven from their home in Rockville, Maryland, to upstate New York, where he showed the research to Gruber. Gruber then sent a team to Graham’s lab on the second floor of Building 40 on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland—right smack in the “swamp”—to learn more.

When Graham received word that Pfizer’s Covid vaccine, which was approved first, was more effective even than he’d hoped, he sat down at his desk and wept. “He hadn’t cried that hard,” Lawrence Wright reports in The Plague Year, “since his father died.” For Corbett, the moment for tears was when the results came back on the Moderna vaccine. “I felt like there was no room for mistakes,” she told CNN. “Otherwise, you lost time and people died.”

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service recognized Graham and Corbett’s achievement by naming them federal employees of the year. In May 2021, Corbett left NIH to become an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard. Graham retired in August and moved with his wife to Atlanta to be closer to the grandkids. Between them, Graham and Corbett logged more than a quarter-century on the government payroll.

The dismissive caricature of the lazy federal employees irritates Graham. “When people make these comments about ‘Oh government workers, nine to five by the clock’— most people I knew in government, virtually all the people I knew in government … felt a sense of purpose,” he said. For the record, the actual standard day for a federal employee is 8:30 to 5, and most federal lab workers with whom Graham has worked put in “around 65 hours a week,” because otherwise “you really can’t make progress.” Graham was well-established in his field when he came to NIH. He passed up more lucrative opportunities at research universities to work at NIH on public health crises “in real time.”

The Asknots had a rough time under Trump. He abused them routinely on Twitter as the “deep state.” He fired inspectors general with abandon when their reports criticized his political appointees or revealed problems he preferred to deny. He fired or demoted truth-telling whistleblowers like retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council and Rick Bright from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. He fired FBI agent Peter Strzok for the unpardonable sin of calling Trump an “idiot” and a “douche” in private text messages, and publicly mocked Strzok’s extramarital affair with Lisa Page (“I love you, Lisa! I love you so much!”). He removed Marie Yovanovitch for predicting, correctly, that Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into smearing Hunter Biden would get him impeached. None of these people were angling for invitations to the Gridiron Club dinner.

Trump also rolled back or bottled up regulations, especially on the environment, and tried (though mostly failed) to slash agency budgets. Many career officials headed for the exits, especially at the Labor Department, which lost more than 10 percent of its workforce; the State, Education, and Interior departments, which lost more than 5 percent; and the Agriculture Department, which lost 5 percent. The ones who stayed kept the lights on, even as Trump tried to switch them off.

Christi Grimm is one such hero. An official at the Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (IG) since 1999, Grimm grew up in Edgewater, Colorado, where her grandfather ran the Public Works Department, providing water to the small town, building new roads and sidewalks, and maintaining city parks. “I was proud of how he made our town better,” she would later recall in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee.

In January 2020, Grimm was made acting inspector general at HHS. Three months later, after the pandemic hit, her office released a survey of 323 hospitals around the country taken during the last week of March. The hospitals reported severe shortages of testing supplies, widespread shortages of N95 protective masks, and difficulty meeting the crush of hospital patients. “This is not a review of HHS response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. But of course Trump took it as a personal insult. When a reporter asked him about it at one of his daily Covid briefings, he said, “It’s just wrong” and demanded to know the IG’s name. Later, he went on Twitter to denounce her as partisan (never mind that Grimm had worked eight years under President George W. Bush) and called the report “Another Fake Dossier” (a reference to a discredited document by a retired British spy alleging that Russia possessed compromising information about Trump). A few weeks after that, Trump replaced Grimm with another acting inspector general who was never confirmed by the Senate. Grimm resumed her previous role as deputy inspector general. President Joe Biden promoted her back to acting inspector general, and in June he nominated her to the position on a permanent basis. As of this writing, she has not yet been confirmed.

Shortly after Grimm’s demotion, she testified at a streaming-video hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Inevitably, Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat, asked whether Trump’s statements and actions against her compromised her independence. Grimm answered carefully, but firmly: Independence was “what allows us to bring our objective judgment to bear on problems without worrying whether those that run the programs are hearing what they want to hear.”

To Bill Perry, who for five years was director for standards and guidance at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), surviving Trump was a matter of recalibrating expectations. “A Republican administration is generally not going to be interested in issuing high-impact standards, even those that confer a lot of benefits to workers, because they’re seen as business-unfriendly,” he told me. Under Trump, said Perry, work on major OSHA regulations mostly continued, but with an expectation that “they probably wouldn’t be issued” while Trump was in office. “We weren’t told to stop work on any of these,” he said, but neither were they encouraged to complete the job. It was much the same, he said, under George W. Bush.

The stakes were higher, of course, with Covid, which in 2020 led to the biggest drop in U.S. life expectancy since World War II. Voices within the agency urged Trump to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from being exposed to the virus on the job. Trump ignored them, and OSHA produced advisories instead. But Perry was spared that struggle, because he retired in January 2020. The looming pandemic didn’t affect his timing. “I had been director for over five years at that point,” he said. “I had a number of strong supervisors … that I felt could easily take over. I just felt it was time. It’s grueling work.”

In 1957, an ousted and imprisoned high-ranking Yugoslav official named Milovan Djilas managed to publish in the West a book titled The New Class, which argued that the nomenklatura, or Communist Party bureaucrats occupying key government posts in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European client states, represented a new class that displaced the proletariat as the group on whose behalf Communist governments worked. The book was, in Djilas’s words, “a Marxist critique of contemporary Communism.” That made it irresistible to Irving Kristol, a former Trotskyite turned Cold War liberal turned neoconservative. Kristol Americanized the term “new class” and applied it to a broad group of college-educated postindustrial meritocrats, most of whom either participated directly in government or influenced it from the sidelines. These people, Kristol wrote, were interested not in money, but power in a specific sense: “The ‘new class’ wants to see much of this power redistributed [from the market] to government, where they will then have a major say in how it is exercised.”

Heroes of the “Swamp”
Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson created the modern environmental movement when she published her bestselling 1962 book, Silent Spring. But before that, Carson worked for 15 years as a civil servant, grinding out pamphlets on conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Fisheries. The commercial success of her The Sea Around Us (1951) persuaded Carson the following year to quit her government job and write full-time.

Kristol wrote this in 1975. By then, he no longer recognized much distinction between the workings of free-market capitalism and the workings of democracy, so in effect Kristol was calling the American New Class anti-democratic, much like its Soviet counterpart. Conservatives like Kristol claimed to represent the “silent” or “moral” majority. The New Class, they argued, did not.

Today, conservatives no longer emphasize the idea that they represent majority opinion; rather, their chief claim now is that they represent more authentic opinion. The rural places where they’re strong are, they say, the “real America,” and the urban places where they’re weak (and where most of the population resides) they judge to be enemy territory held captive by the New Class. Accordingly, conservatives have shifted their emphasis from courting conservative white Democrats, as Richard Nixon did in 1968 and 1972, to subverting a more racially diverse Democratic majority through an escalating series of disenfranchisement schemes that culminated in the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021.

Heroes of the “Swamp”
A. Ernest “Ernie” Fitzgerald

A. Ernest “Ernie” Fitzgerald was working at the Pentagon as deputy for management systems in 1968 when he testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Economy in Government about cost overruns on Lockheed’s C-5A Galaxy transport plane. The Air Force demoted and then fired him. He was reinstated in 1973 and became a full-time whistleblower, furnishing damaging information about contracting irregularities to congressional committees.

The Asknots are the Washington, D.C., branch of the New Class. They do not much resemble the Soviet nomenklatura and never did. Unlike their Russian counterparts, they never subverted democracy, and never enriched themselves at government expense. Indeed, far from subverting democracy, the Asknots these days are working to shore it up as best they can by expanding ballot access and challenging Republican state efforts to politicize vote-counting. Kristol wasn’t wrong that the American New Class sought to expand its influence. But it did so in perfectly legitimate ways, working through institutions of democratic governance and civil society.

One way the Asknots did this was through the public interest movement spearheaded by Ralph Nader and a variety of environmental groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s with seed money from the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. A 1966 decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals, United Church of Christ v. Federal Communications Commission, opened the floodgates to citizen lawsuits against federal agencies. Previously, it had been presumed that agencies like the FCC, which were created to promote the public interest, could be counted on to do what was best for the public. Now the D.C. appellate court said that presumption no longer stood up “under the realities of actual experience,” and that the public needed to be granted a voice of its own in agency decision-making. The judge who handed down this decision, ironically, was Warren Burger, a conservative jurist later installed by President Richard Nixon as chief justice of the Supreme Court. As a result of his ruling, liberal public interest groups—and, later, their industry-backed fun house–mirror images, lobby groups that masqueraded as public interest groups—became actively engaged, through litigation and lobbying, in the issuing and framing of all major federal regulations.

The other way the Asknots extended their influence was through the de facto private expansion of government after 1960 through contract labor. Some legitimate criticisms have been raised about expanding the government off the books. It’s less accountable and in many cases more expensive than hiring federal employees. At the Pentagon, where spending on federal contracts is today two and a half times what it was in 2001, more than half of all annual appropriations go out the door to contractors. In 2019, according to a report by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the Pentagon had 53,000 contractors stationed in the Middle East to “support” 35,000 troops. That’s out of control.

On the other hand, the number and variety of responsibilities undertaken by the federal government since World War II inevitably require greater depth of expertise. Overall, the number of contract and grant employees working for the federal government grew from about five million people in 1984 to about seven million in 2020, according to Paul Light, a political scientist at NYU and the leading authority on this subject. About four million of these people work for the Pentagon. The other three million work for civilian executive-branch departments, mostly those with a heavy emphasis on science and technology (Transportation, Energy, Agriculture, Interior, NASA, and Commerce).

The predominantly scientific orientation of the civilian contractor labor force reflects a conscious effort on the part of the federal government after World War II to invest in scientific research, following the recommendation of Vannevar Bush, director of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, in his famous July 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier. “Without scientific progress,” Bush wrote, “no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” Bush’s report was hugely influential, leading to, among other things, the creation of the grant-making National Science Foundation (NSF).

Tonie Marie Gordon works for the NSF, not as a federal employee but as an employee of SRI International, a nonprofit research firm created by Stanford University in 1946 under the name Stanford Research Institute. (It broke away from Stanford in 1970.) According to the Silicon Valley Historical Association, SRI hosted the country’s first symposium on air pollution in 1949. Less grandly, it advised Walt Disney to locate his first theme park in Anaheim, California, at that time a rural community dotted with orange groves. Today it’s a government contractor, with about $23 million in funding from the NSF.

Gordon grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in a working-class African American family. Her father was employed at General Motors’ Lordstown auto plant and later at a series of “small jobs,” she told me, “just to keep the family going.” Her mother worked as a seamstress and caterer, among other jobs. “My job,” Gordon said, “was really to go to school and work hard and look after myself.” Gordon went to Youngstown State for her undergraduate degree and the University of Virginia, where she received a doctorate in sociology in 2015. On graduating, Gordon decided not to pursue a career in academia, because she wanted to address “the concerns that shaped” her early life.

For a while, Gordon worked at a public policy and technology research firm affiliated with the University of Maryland, focusing mostly on issues related to implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Then she did some freelance work with nonprofits. Then she moved to Atlanta to work for a private health insurer. The pay was better, and the research—on blockchain applications to health care, on artificial intelligence, and on the “internet of things”—was on the cutting edge, and not all that different, in many ways, from her earlier work. Eventually, though, Gordon drifted back to the nonprofit sector, landing at SRI in 2020.

At SRI, Gordon’s work includes studying public perceptions of science, public perceptions of climate change, public perceptions of Covid, and the broader problems of science literacy and health literacy. She’s working to bridge the gulf between scientific imperatives and public opinion. How can the public better understand scientific work? How can scientists better understand the public’s objections? These are urgent questions, and Gordon won’t solve them, but perhaps she can identify a few new pieces to the puzzle.

Gordon lives comfortably on her SRI salary, but she could make more if she worked for a tech company, as many advised her to do when she was in Atlanta. “You could make a lot of money,” they told her. “You could write your ticket.” Gordon wasn’t interested. “Growing up as humbly as I did,” she told me, “I feel like living the life I do, I don’t need to go after the thing that necessarily makes the most money.”

Irving Kristol would be appalled, but John Kenneth Galbraith got it. In The Affluent Society, published one year after The New Class, Galbraith, like Kristol, applied the term New Class to describe college- and graduate school–educated American meritocrats. Unlike Kristol, he made the comparison a playful one, his ultimate purpose not to brand this group an American nomenklatura but rather to enlarge it. “[T]he further and rapid expansion of this class,” he wrote, “should be a major, and perhaps next to peaceful survival itself, the major social goal of the society.”

Galbraith was not troubled, as Kristol later was, that the New Class didn’t exert every muscle to chase the Almighty Dollar. “Why should men struggle to maximize income,” Galbraith asked, “when the price is many dull and dark hours of labor?” Granted, this was perhaps a market inefficiency. The “more stolid and reputable of the professional economists,” Galbraith observed, would never approve, because “the production of material goods, urgent or otherwise, is the accepted measure of our progress.” (Galbraith was writing before the service economy lurched ahead of manufacturing.) But no such economist, Galbraith wrote, would ever “think of applying such a standard to himself. In his own life, he is an exponent of all the aspirations of the New Class.”

Galbraith the ironist can be tricky to tease apart from Galbraith the moralist, but I think he was giving the Asknots his blessing. To be sure, some live lives of haut bourgeois privilege. The Washington, D.C., metropolitan region ranks consistently high in tallies of median income, and sometimes tops the list. But even after an influx in recent years of wealthier residents, D.C. remains a second-rate playground for plutocrats. When Donald Trump left office, he halved the city’s billionaire count, assuming he really is one. And D.C.’s remaining billionaire, Jeff Bezos, lives here only part-time. (A second billionaire, Peter Thiel, bought a house in D.C. in August.)

Perhaps a dozen billionaires live in the metro area, but New York City has 99, Moscow 79, London 63, Mumbai and San Francisco 48 each. The country’s noisiest detractors of the deep state are invariably out-of-sight rich: Trump, Steve Bannon (net worth: a reported $48 million), Tucker Carlson (net worth: a reported $30 million), Sean Hannity (net worth: a reported $250 million).

“Washington is unfashionable,” my late first wife, the writer Marjorie Williams, observed in 1993, “and God bless it.” The Asknots rather like it that way. They aren’t looking to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. Most would sincerely prefer to avoid public attention of any kind. I had hoped to demonstrate that Washington is a city of good neighbors by interviewing a neighbor of mine who works for an environmental nonprofit and volunteers for a group that resettles Afghan and other refugees. She’s a lovely person. While I was out of town on vacation in August, she watered my tomato plants, and, on my return, she was exquisitely tactful in explaining how I’d been overwatering them. But when I asked her to sit for an interview, she said no. Not interested. But let’s get together soon, she suggested, on our front porch for drinks.

I encountered that a lot, actually, in reporting this story. There are practical reasons for Asknots to avoid the spotlight, especially given the hyperpartisan demolition derby that is Twitter and Facebook and all the rest. But mostly that just isn’t what they’re looking for. Which is lovely. But as a result, people outside Washington seldom register that the Asknots even exist, much less thank them for the important work they do.

Heroes of the “Swamp”
Ana B. Hinojosa and Eric Choy

Ana B. Hinojosa retired in 2021 as executive director of the Trade Remedy Law Enforcement Directorate of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Eric Choy is acting executive director. Last year, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service recognized Hinojosa and Choy for blocking imports made with forced labor from China, Malaysia, Malawi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Turkmenistan, and Zimbabwe.

When the Asknots are acknowledged, it’s as an oppressive overclass that acts against a public will that the Asknots’ detractors don’t define. It’s cheap and easy to attack the Asknots, because they’ll never answer back as a group—they don’t operate in concert—nor as individuals. So they get labeled an elite by people earning infinitely higher incomes. Or they get labeled insular by people who do not—as the Asknots do, because their jobs require it—interact daily with members of the public representing every conceivable point of view. Some nutcases label them child molesters because that’s just about the worst thing you can call anyone. And gullible, sometimes mentally ill people believe it, because there’s no one around to tell them anything different. It’s outrageous.

These are good people. I’ve done my fieldwork over 40 years living in half a dozen neighborhoods around the city and interacting with the Asknots professionally whenever I can persuade one to take his life in his hands by speaking to a journalist. I’ve met Asknots at dinner parties. I’ve learned from them on every conceivable subject. My children have slept at their houses. I’ve dated them. One of them is among my very oldest and dearest friends. These are excellent folk, many possessing a strength of character I can only envy. They’re what make Washington, D.C., the most public-spirited city in the country. Undeterred by all the much-publicized Thistown-ness of the place, the Asknots keep coming. They shape your nation’s capital, inspire it, and keep it afloat, and you should feel grateful for them every single goddamned day.

This article appeared in the
March 2022 print edition with the headline “Washington, D.C.: Not a Swamp.”