Farewell to the Fight

The following story appeared in District Lines, Volume III, published by Politics & Prose in January 2016.

“All I know is that it was very bad when I was twenty-eight.” — Joan Didion

For me, working in politics was more like “The Office” than “The West Wing” or “House of Cards.” It happened haphazardly, if not quite randomly, as I grappled with the reality of growing up. Having tried and failed to break into publishing in New York, I was still looking for my first real job. I hoped to find a career that would offer meaning and, I admit, a certain level of prestige. More than anything else, I desperately wanted to matter. I believed that I could make a difference and hoped that I would, but the main reason I started working in politics is that politics would have me. Then I got sucked in by the idea of politics, by the illusion of influence, by the promise that I was always one step away from having an impact. But as I rose through the ranks, my spirit slowly sank. Yes, there were good days, but they were outnumbered by the weeks wasted on Twitter, waiting for something to happen. Most of the time, it was just a job like any other — one that wore me down, made me question my self worth, and left me longing for more. Finally, I quit because I decided that politics, which embraced me when nobody else would, had no use for the person that I wanted to be.

I arrived in the nation’s capital in January 2009, almost two years after I graduated from college and two months shy of my 24th birthday, to start working at a liberal nonprofit. On the morning before my first day, I woke up at 6:15 a.m., showered, and walked a mile down Connecticut Avenue to the Metro in the dark. A few stops later, I came up the escalator and felt a blast of cold wind across my face as I surveyed the unfamiliar intersection. I didn’t stop at the coffee shop on the corner because caffeine was not yet a daily necessity. Just before 7:30, I watched a young woman with wet hair and bursting backpack enter the building looking like a weary student on the morning of a final exam. This was a dry run; the next day I would be walking in behind her. I would stay inside, so to speak, for the next five years.

My first boss was a former adviser to a leader in the Senate, but he looked more like a mad scientist, or perhaps an overgrown middle schooler. He had dark, curly hair on his big block of a head. At 30 years old, he was baby-faced with a look in his eyes that fluctuated between wonderment and impatience. I don’t remember how he was dressed on the day we met — the day he hired me — but I imagine him wearing an untucked collared shirt, wrinkled khakis, and a pair of New Balances or Nike Dunks. That afternoon, he leaned back in his chair and rested his feet on the conference room table. Our conversation was brief. Then he led me to an empty cubicle, past a handful of twentysomethings sporting massive headphones and staring at monitors, and handed me a printout of a press release.

“Refute this. I’ll be back in 25 or 30 minutes,” he said and walked away briskly.

When he returned, he glanced over my shoulder for no more than a few seconds and clicked the red “X” in the top right corner of the screen. He didn’t bother to save the document on which I had staked my entire future.

“The job is yours if you want it,” he said. “You can think about it for a few days and let me know.”

“I’m ready to accept now,” I answered.

In the early days, there were just a half-dozen of us in a small room that had recently served as a storage closet. As I browsed the blogosphere for political fodder, my boss was usually pacing or reclining in his desk chair, eyes darting around his computer screen like a predator looking for an opportunity to pounce. When he located his target, he would yell something like “I’m going to poop on your head!” and start typing frantically, pumping out a withering blog post in a matter of minutes. I always laughed, not appreciating that reality wasn’t so far from the joke.

I didn’t appreciate it, I think, because I so badly wanted to believe that I had made it. The road to that first job spanned two cities, three internships, and more false starts than I can count. It peaked with a stint at Esquire, the home of so much timeless writing, where I mainly conducted research for the sex column — by which I mean cold-calling doctors and sex therapists and adult film actresses with humiliating questions. Then came unemployment, rejection, and the descent into depression. Although my parents were paying my rent in New York, I got a small taste of how joblessness can make a person desperate for distraction. In my case, I became obsessed with the presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain. In the fall of 2008, my daily routine was consistent: sleep late, check the job listings, and scour the Internet for news about the campaign. I needed to see the latest polls in the battleground states. I had to know who had said what and why to be outraged. I even started watching cable news. Meanwhile, when I visited my girlfriend in Washington, I would stroll around the city and marvel at its sense of peace.

For several months after I moved, I rarely strayed from the stretch of the Red Line that runs from downtown to the upscale Maryland suburb of Bethesda, with the sleepy Van Ness neighborhood where I lived sandwiched in between. I still remember walking from the office near DuPont Circle to the U Street Corridor, an area in the midst of gentrification, to play basketball and feeling like I was in another city altogether. Before long, we traded our converted-closet bullpen for a shiny new office in Chinatown, expanding my horizons by a couple of Metro stops. And when I got married in 2011, my wife and I bought a condo barely a block from the basketball court where I used to play. As the neighborhood blossomed with trendy restaurants and luxury apartment buildings, it became a magnet for the city’s successful young professionals — a crowd that somehow had come to include me.

But even then, I felt like I was faking it. As I climbed the professional ladder, I viewed each step as temporary, a means of establishing credibility, a springboard that would finally launch me toward something better. I didn’t understand the people who bounced from campaign to campaign or organization to organization, chasing news cycles and making partisan politics into an actual career. It took a long time to accept that I had become one of them. But when people asked what I did for a living, I finally replaced “I’m a writer” with “I work at a political organization” or “It’s kind of hard to explain.”

It really was hard to explain, at least in a way that didn’t make me feel ridiculous. My title changed — Washington is full of deputies of this and directors of that — but the work remained essentially the same: I searched wherever I could for political ammunition and attacked the other side online. I monitored cable news, floor speeches, press releases, newspaper columns, and Twitter feeds, hunting for gaffes and lies. I played gotcha and called bullshit. There were times when it was fun. On my best days, I influenced a national news story or inspired a segment on “The Daily Show.” More often than not, however, I was shouting into television screens and pounding on my keyboard to make points that would only reach a small number of political obsessives, who already agreed with me or didn’t.

We often hear about a “campaign of ideas,” but I came to believe that our public discourse makes that impossible. The problem is that politics is a long-term game in which the players compete to win short-term contests — elections, the news cycle, and, in the age of Twitter, the moment. And while you can’t win a substantive argument in 140 characters or a sound bite, you can mock opponents or pander to a crowd. But there is little to gain from nuance or honest engagement with conflicting ideas, so we rarely bother attempting to change minds. The more immersed I became in politics the less intelligent, creative, and interesting I felt. I hated going out to dinner and hearing people a table over having the same conversations I had all day. I hated talking to friends in other cities and struggling to think of anything else to bring up. The cynicism took hold gradually, but it was a powerful, paralyzing force.

In June 2012, as campaign season was heating up, my father-in-law passed away. He was only 59 years old, but he didn’t waste the time he got. Based on the overwhelming response to his death — from the large family he treasured, the legal clients he represented, and even the lawmakers who represented him in Congress — it was obvious that he mattered to the world around him. The heartbreaking reminder of a life lived with purpose made me realize that I was adrift. I started telling people close to me that I was ready to move on; I would stay through Election Day and then figure it out. But when I went back to work, the daily routine took over again. On the night of the election, we had a party at the office, and after the networks called Ohio, a bunch of us went to the roof and drank a bottle of scotch. We got to stay home for the rest of the week, but once the election hangover wore off, I had to tell half my team they were losing their jobs. The campaign was over, and I was still there.

One morning the next spring, I awoke to an unwelcome work email, walked out of my apartment, and kicked a tree in frustration. I could almost wrap my fingers around its flimsy white trunk, which rose maybe 15 feet in the air from a dirt patch on the sidewalk, but the force of impact still hurt the ball of my foot. Then I stopped for coffee and dragged myself to the office, limping slightly and dreading the day ahead. That’s when I knew, once and for all, that I had to leave. But leaving was easier said than done. In 2013, it was like I was 23 all over again — resumes went unanswered, emails were blown off, interviews led nowhere. In some ways, it was worse. In 2008, I was inexperienced and untested, but my options were virtually limitless. Now, I had experience, but it was the wrong experience. I wanted to leave politics behind, but I couldn’t imagine other possibilities. I was stuck.

Later that summer, my wife and I had a fight. We were never a couple that fought, but we got into a stupid argument one night — I thought that she was being unfair, I said something mean, and she got mad — and I started to cry. It was a hard, violent cry from somewhere deep inside, a cry like I never remember crying before, a cry totally out of proportion to the pettiness that provoked it. I cried for a few minutes until I stopped, began trembling, and got really cold. My wife wrapped me in a blanket, but then I was too hot. I told her I was sorry, and then I started hyperventilating, which went on for several more minutes. At one point, for no apparent reason, I laughed hysterically for maybe 20 seconds. After taking a lot of deep breaths and finally calming down, I felt a tingling in my hands and an impulse to keep my eyes wide open. When it was over, I was exhausted and felt something like peace.

I finally accepted that it wasn’t politics that was holding me back. The problem was me. If I wanted something more, I had to take action, and maybe even a risk. So I turned down another job in politics and gave notice. For the first time in years, I didn’t have a plan — but I was finally free. My last day was exactly two years after my father-in-law passed away. Instead of celebrating, I went to synagogue with my wife and said the Mourner’s Kaddish for her dad. That was almost a year ago now, but it feels like much longer. Although we still live in Washington, it’s hard to remember the days dominated by talking points and tweets, and my ears don’t perk up anymore when I hear a politician’s name at dinner. Every now and then, I see a political story trending online, shake my head, and try to imagine what the old me would have thought. Then I close the browser and go back to work. I have a good job, I’m writing, and I’m happy. I don’t know if I’m making a difference, not in the way that I used to think I would, but I have a new definition of what it means to matter.

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