| Being a congressional aide requires an almost instinctive ability to turn the system into a game. You can learn how to do this, but unless you are able to learn fast, you will grow disgruntled, burn out, and be stuck in the dead-end world of answering letters from every crackpot constituent in your member's home district. In that sense, being an aide was exactly like being a member.
The game in the Congress has nothing to do with what goes on outside of Congress. Those home districts? Those speeches to the Elks? The shaking hands all day Saturday in the supermarket parking lot? Worthless. Having a high-seniority seat on a sub-committee and a specialization in one specific issue? Priceless.
Anyway, this little story is not about the game, per se. It certainly isn't about giving you, the reader, a civics lesson. But it's a wet weekday morning before Thanksgiving, there's a skeletal staff in the office, and what is the point of exploiting your position if you can't tell anyone about it? So, our story begins a few weeks ago in early November.
My friend Kevin and I were having lunch in one of the House cafeterias.
"Thanks again for coming over to visit your poor relations," I said as we sat down with our trays.
"Well, you guys are a co-equal body," Kevin said, "and I do like to see how the other half lives." Kev and I had been in the same class at law school, where we both largely focused our studies on drinking four days a week and going down to Manhattan to chase women with the rest of our friends. He had left his law firm to become a legislative assistant to a rising liberal senator. In his new job, Kev would focus his work on some specific issue that excited both the senator and Kevin but bored me. "I hear you guys are actually getting push-button phones next year." Kev liked to kid me about the backwardness of House offices. Making fun of the House for being backward, poor, and generally irrelevant was a popular thing to do on the Hill.
"Yeah, but I'm really excited about this new thing called the internet," I replied. "I hear it has, like, thousands of people on it."
"Maybe you should budget that just for yourself."
"I do have the power. Don't want those staffers playing fantasy football all day long."
Here was the joke: Kev loved fantasy football. So did everyone on the Hill and in the town; for various reasons, DC is a football city. But although Kevin was a legislative aide to a senator, he shared an office with two other people, and he was always afraid they would see him not doing work, report him, get him fired, and ruin his career.
I on the other hand, had an office with a door and a near-six-figure salary. Like an idiot, I had joined the staff of a House member straight from law school. I was paid nothing, became a legislative correspondent, and generally spent the first year squandering the past three years of a fine legal education. But no one stays long in one place in the House--especially staff--and as more senior staff in my office left, got fired, or were indicted (long story), I gradually moved up the ranks until, four years out of law school, I was my member's Chief of Staff.
At 29, I was the youngest COS on the Hill. I had my own office, a window, and a door that closed. I ran the office; hired staff, fired staff, and made it possible for my Member to be able to run back to his district every weekend, eat some rubber chicken dinners with civic groups Friday and Saturday nights, and then come back Tuesday morning for committee hearings, floor votes, and, the boozy Wednesday Caucus meeting, where my member and other members of his party met in the cloakroom off the House floor (members only, no staff), drank too much and talked about their mistresses.
"So," Kevin asked, "have you fired anybody lately?" I had fired an intern a month ago for not working and spending all day on the internet playing fantasy football.
"Nah, but if you'd like a job on the House side, I'll fire out press secretary. She's been using the autopen to write phony recommendation letters for her friends' kids. Plus, she's a size 6 and married."
"Not acceptable. Gotta spread that around."
We talked about sports for awhile, but I got the sense that Kevin wanted to confess something. As I spooned the last of my clam chowder, Kevin broke the news.
"You know, I'm thinking about wrapping it up next spring."
"Yeah, I think I'm going to get a headhunter and start the process back into the private sector."
This was a shock. "Is it the money?" I asked.
"Kinda. I mean, working for a law firm is more lucrative than anything else I can do in this town."
"Do you want to leave DC?"
"No, I like it here. It's a nice place to live. And I don't think I could do New York, not to live there."
"You could always go back to Cleveland. I hear it rocks."
Kevin smiled. He was from Cleveland originally and knew it did not rock.
"I just get this sense," Kevin began. He had begun paragraphs like this before over the course of the seven years I had known him. I knew what was coming. "I just get this sense that none of this, or at least none of what I'm doing, it just doesn't matter. I feel like five days a week I'm pushing the same paper that I did at the law firm. I do research, I write proposed legislation, it gets marked up by the legislative director, it gets sent back down and I re-do it. We send it around, and the committee never bothers with any of it. Someone else's bill on something else entirely gets all the attention. It's like one big document review project, and I don't even have any billable hour requirement to meet. And I get the sense that everyone else in my office is doing the same thing. We haven't had a bill in committee all term."
I gave Kev a second to gather his thoughts. "Your guy is on the Sunday shows twice a month," I said. "There are legislators all over your building who can't get close to Russert or Stephanopolous."
"And I never see the guy," Kev said. "For another thing. He's never in the office."
"No wonder he's an up and comer."
Kev didn't react. "Look," I continued, "I'm management and let me tell you what the view from the management position is. It is far more important to work for an important member than one who gets important things done. Rule number one of this place. The Hill is a marathon, not a sprint. Let me throw all the aphorisms out at you," I said, smiling. Kev smiled back.
"You've got a three to four year career here," I continued, "if you want to go back to a firm as an of counsel or a partner. It's a piece of cake. Look, your guy could be a VPOTUS finalist in the '08 cycle. That's huge. That's fucking huge. And that will pay a dividend for the rest of your life. Just like our law school. It took three years to get that added to our resume for ever."
Kev thought it over. "Yeah," he said. "I guess if it wasn't for where I went to law school, I probably wouldn't have even gotten this job."
"Here's my advice. Totally free and worth what you pay for it. Pick out an intern next semester. Cute, plain, thin, fat, whatever. Go out for drinks. Fuck her. Seduce her. Do her on the office couch one night after hours. Or pick some intern from the office next door. That's what everyone else in this place is doing. Besides, it'll keep your mind off all the unimportant things in life."
Kev chuckled. "Pussy is life," he said, the old motto of our wildcat days. God, how did we ever graduate from law school?
"Pussy is life," I echoed, raising my glass.
So, that was a few weeks ago. There was a little Atlantic Coast Caucus mixer one Saturday at McFadden's pub in Foggy Bottom for the Miami-Virginia Tech game, ostensibly for the staff of congressional members from the Atlantic coast. Although that didn't cover us, Kev and I both knew some people there so we crashed it halfway through the second quarter.
Let me provide some translation: "mixer" is Hill Speak for an event where staffers get together, get drunk, and go home with each other. Let me translate some more: "Hill Staffer" is Hill speak for preppy-looking twenty-something with a bachelor's degree and an overactive libido.
Somewhere by the fourth quarter, I was making plans to head out to a club with some people (the club was 1223 and we all got wasted). I saw Kev talking to a girl wearing a black skirt and black tights. They each had a half-empty beer bottle in their hands, and Kevin had one hand on her cute-looking ass while they were chatting. So, I knew Kev was going to be okay.
What can I say. I give good advice.
But, on these rainy November days before the Thanksgiving recess, what about me? What about me taking my own advice? The blues sometimes get to me around this time of year, too; sometimes I get a little down about myself, my direction in life, my greater purpose.
Well, fuck that shit! Let me tell you about how I took my own advice.
Although the Congress had not yet officially recessed, my boss had long since gone back to his home district. After he left, the staff slowly tricked out on their way to vacation, days off, et cetera. We had three interns in the office, one of them a college grad looking for work on the Hill. I helped her get hired over in the Senate, and she was gone. One intern was a college junior, a gay guy who would be with us until his Washington semester program ended in December.
The last intern, Katie, was finishing up her degree from a big state school this semester. "I guess I'm on the four-and-a-half year plan," Katie said one day while we were chatting. She just needed enough credits as a semester interning and taking classes in Washington would provide. "Plus," Katie said, "I'd love to come here after graduation. The Hill is so exciting! And I really like this city!"
"Oh yeah? Even if you had to live in Crystal City?" Crystal City was this crappy neighborhood near the airport across the Potomac in Virginia. She lived there with her internship program and I would often tease her about it.
"Crystal City's not that bad!" she would playfully reply. It was that bad, but I had to hand it to her—the girl had a lot of enthusiasm.
By the Friday before Thanksgiving, barely anyone was left in the office. It was rainy, cold day. No one was left in our office except myself, Katie, and our paid receptionist, a middle-aged black woman who would lock up and be gone by 4:45 pm like clockwork.
Katie was in the Press Secretary's office, putting together the clips talking about legislation from the monthly magazines. This was a thankless and pointless task, which were essentially the only ones our Press Secretary ever gave any of our interns to do. I think it made her feel important. I never gave interns things to do, except running some errands when I absolutely needed them to, because none of my duties should be able to be done by an intern. If an intern could do something I needed to do, then obviously I had failed to properly delegate it out to one of the junior staffers.
"Still here?" I asked, leaning in the door frame. The Press Secretary was the only other staffer in the office with their own window and door that closed.
"Yep. Just finishing some projects Karen left for me."
I hated hearing the Press Secretary's first name. It made me think some people actually considered her a normal human being.
"Just clips from the monthly magazines."
"Why don't you leave that off and come with me. I'll explain it to Karen," inwardly shuddering as I used her given name, "because I have a project I need you to complete this afternoon."
I could see the conflicting emotions running through Katie's mind. On one hand, doing work for the chief of staff was the sort of thing that could help land her a job on the Hill and save her from having to go back to the Midwest in January. On the other hand, getting an emergency project on Friday afternoon was a shortcut to having a ruined weekend.
But, dutifully, Katie stood up, ready to rally round. As she rose, I could see the nice, classic style with which Katie was dressed. She was a plump girl, not fat but nicely, pleasantly plump, and her clothes couldn't help but accent that.
Katie was wearing three-inch black pumps, a long patterned gray skirt that reached past her knees, and a thin black sweater. Her brown hair hung loosely to her shoulders. Cute. Soft. In her warm looking wool and cotton she looked very cuddly. Chubby. Nice.
I led her down the hall to my office. I opened the antique cabinet that had been in the office when I was promoted, and took out two glasses and the Brandy.
"Your assignment," I informed Katie with mock-seriousness, "is to have a little Brandy with me on a cold November afternoon."
She smiled and took the glass from me. "I think I can do that."
"Here's to politics," I toasted and we clinked our glasses together.
We settled into the leather chairs I kept in front of my desk for visitors. The light was dying outside. Katie crossed her legs, right over left, causing her skirt to ride up a little and highlighting the fullness of her thighs.
The brandy was robust; it was a mature liquor to be offering to a college senior, a glass would go to her head rather quickly. Of course, she could hardly reject her boss's offer to drink with her in his office.
"So, tell me confidently—have you liked your taste of the Hill?"
"Oh, it's been great. I can really see myself staying here, I think it would be amazing to work here full time. There's so much good you can do, even in little bits and pieces, you know?"
"That's great. How about your internship in this office? Have you liked it? Is there anything you wanted to see or do that you couldn't?"
She thought about it a second. "No, I think it's been an amazing experience. Especially working with Karen and getting to see how the news gets made; she's been great about letting me go to press conferences and watching all that."
"I'm glad. That's good. It sounds like you've been getting a lot out of your time here." God, I was only 29—why did I sound so formal and professorial? At moments like these I always wished I could take the pole out of my ass and relax around people more easily.
We chatted about other things for a little while, giving her time to make some progress through her glass. I asked her about her classes, and her school. She was in a sorority, so, bonus points for her there. She actually asked me some questions about my life and my job. Why is it so rare for women in their early twenties to ask questions and be curious about anything? So, more bonus points for Katie.
When her glass had only a few sips left, I asked her whether she had applied for any Staff Assistant or Legislative Correspondent positions, the typical entry-level positions to any Member's office.
"I have, I mean, just a few."
"Good; this is the right time, right before the internship comes to an end. Have you had any luck?"
"No," she said, dejected.
"Not even an interview?"
She shook her head, in a cute, young girlish way.
"That's a surprise. It's so tough getting a full-time gig here, that's true. Does it matter to you—whether it's the House or the Senate?"
"Don't worry," I said with good cheer, "you're not going to offend me. I know most people would rather be in the Senate!"
She smiled. "Well, yeah. I'd love to work for a great Senator, like—" and she named some famous Senators who you've probably heard of and may even admire.
"That's good," I said, "you seem like you have a lot of ideals, very public spirited. That's good."
"Of course, this is a very . . . visual kind of town. It's a lot about appearance, and how you carry yourself."
"I know—that's very true. People pay so much attention to how they dress, even the guys!"
"And people are very quick to judge you—it's almost like Hollywood, you know?"
"I know. Some of the people here are very interesting, but then so many people seem so superficial."
"It only gets worse the longer you're here," I said. "You expect it to change as you move up the ladder, but you just find even more fake people at the top. And people always really react to how they think you are—if they see you looking one way, or talking to one person, they extrapolate who you must be from that. It's very tough." "Sounds a lot like sorority pledging."
I smiled. "It can be pretty catty. Listen--I have a few friends over on the Senate side, and I think I know of a few openings."
"I do. It may not be with the two you just named, but I think you can get your feet wet with some good shops over there, and then in a year or two, lateral over into a Legislative Assistant position with some of the heavy-hitters. Sound good?"
"Shit, yeah! Oh, excuse me, I didn't mean to—"
I laughed. "That's okay, Katie. This is the Congress—I think we might have heard words like that before."
"I know, it just doesn't seem—you know, I mean, this office is so fancy, with the big furniture and this thick carpet . . ."
"I'm glad," I said, getting up to close and lock the door to my office. I glanced at the clock; the receptionist would be locking up in a few minutes.
"It may be fancy," I said, sitting down again, "but you'll find that most people in the Congress are just like people anyplace else." I pulled my chair closer to hers. "You go out to bars with other interns and some staffers, right?"
"And everyone gets just as trashed right?"
She laughed. "Yeah."
"See, no big deal. What's crazy though, is when you're out at a bar and you see a Member who's totally trashed!"
"I like this outfit," I told her, reaching out and putting my hand on her knee. That startled her. I could feel her nude pantyhose under my hand. "You're actually a very cute girl, Katie. Even when I haven't had a glass of brandy."
"Uh, I don't know—"
I shushed her, gently. My hand was caressing her knee. "Remember what I said? This town is all about appearances. And girl who is a little chunky like you can have a hard time moving up, you know?"
She seemed a little too nervous to do anything.
"And let's face it, everyone can use a little help," I continued. "Look, you're a smart girl, I think you know what this is all about."
I paused, waiting for her to make the next move.
"I-I should go," she began.
"Why? Because a well-respected chief of staff made a pass at you and offered to do a favor for you? Who will you tell? You know, they all got their job the same way, doing favors for someone. C'mon, don't you like my office?"
"C'mon, don't you think I'm cute? At least when I smile, like this?"
She smiled. "Yeah."
"Do you have a boyfriend? Is that it?"
"No. I don't have a boyfriend."
"Then why not? Everyone's gone home. Besides, you definitely look good enough to touch," my hand moving up her thigh.
"I don't know, I can't, I just can't."
"Are you a virgin?"
"That's none of your business!"
"You can't be: you're in a sorority!"
"No, I'm not a virgin, I just—"
"Don't want to have to get your next job like this?"
"Katie, listen to me. I think we both know the score. You don't have to like it, or want it, but this is it. This is it. Welcome to D.C." I took one of her hands in mine. It was cold, nervous.
As if that would work with me!
"Stand up, Katie."
She did as told.
As she did, I put my hand on her hip, then lowered it down to her ass. I gave her a playful smack on her bottom.
"I'm going to have some fun with you," I told her.
"I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Do you want to?"
"No, not really."
"Are you going to?"
In a very quiet voice: "Yes."
I ran my hands over her body, feeling the softness of her curves and the fullness of her form.