Only in Washington…

Blogger’s Note – This is a draft that I’ve been working on for a few weeks. It’s pretty rough. And it has footnotes. I had no idea they would translate into WordPress but there they are. Any feedback is appreciated.

Washington DC is like nowhere else. Literally. There is no city that operates with the same level of dysfunction as the District of Columbia. There are even terms for those of us lucky citizens who choose to make their living, and live within, the metro Washington area. We live and work “inside the Beltway[1].” You live and work “outside the Beltway.”

We’re not New Yorkers or San Franciscans or Richmonders or, even, Texans. No no no. Those terms are far too inclusive. We choose to distinguish ourselves by who is “in” and who is “out.” (Not to be confused with the parting line of Heidi Klum on my favorite reality show “Project Runway.”)

But the terms themselves have become tricky. It is only among a very limited set of people where being considered “inside the Beltway” is preferable than being considered “outside the Beltway.” And, generally speaking, this is only among other Beltway insiders. It’s the high school popular crowd gone horribly, horribly wrong. Some people are so anxious about being seen as “inside” versus “outside” that they will even base their living decisions on whether or not they can claim “outsider” or “insider” status.

The other day I was riding the Metro home and struck up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me on the train. Turns out, he was a high ranking staff member for a member of Congress. Why then, I asked him, did he live all the way out in Alexandria? (Which is a good hour long commute to the Hill.) Most Capitol Hill staff live within walking distance of the Capitol due to the long hours required of the job.

His answer should not have surprised me. Turns out, he did not live in Alexandria, but even farther away in Fairfax County so that he could tell constituents back home that he did, in fact and quite literally, live outside the Beltway. Even if, he confessed to me, it was only by two miles.

You see, living inside the Beltway is like living in an echo chamber that has been enhanced and amplified by the additions of the 24-7 news networks, bloggers, and the ever present Twitter. Sometimes the noise is so deafening you forget what’s really happening. You hear the same five (if you’re lucky) stories over and over and over again and forget that, shock surprise!, there are more than five stories of importance in the world. But, by the end of the workday, you’re convinced that the whole world knows the latest Sarah Palin story[2], what’s the latest breaking news on the revelation of Journo-list[3], and that President Obama, once again, ate at Ray’s Hell Burger[4].

But people outside the Beltway, for the most part, don’t follow individual reporters on Twitter; aren’t, for the most part, paid to watch the news for 8-12 hours of the day; and don’t care about the latest Sarah Palin drama, Journo-list, or where Pres. Obama eats lunch. Nor do they understand why we care. They’re worried about the cost of COBRA health insurance, whether or not their mortgage is under water, how their school district compares to the neighboring school district, or a host of other things.

Living here, I’ve realized that there is a true Beltway culture – one where information is king and the more you know about the minutiae of a story, the more people will listen to you. The problem with the focus on the minutiae is that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, which is of concern to those outside of the Beltway, the ones we claim to be serving. I’m not saying the minutiae isn’t important, the devil is in the details as they say. I’m saying we need to focus on both. We need to see the big picture if only so we stop being surprised when people vocally disagree with the way things are done.


[1] The Beltway being US Highway 495 that circumvents parts of Virginia, DC, and MD. The area contained inside the circle is generally considered the DC Metro area.

[2] Can anyone explain to me the “Mama Grizzly” thing? No really. I don’t get it.

[3] An exclusive mailing list for left leaning journalists that was started by Ezra Klein, now a blogger/columnist for the Washington Post. The list was used to get sources, flesh out story ideas, and debate current events. And yes, people cared greatly that such a list existed. Andrew Breitbart even offered $100,000 for a copy of its archives. Yes, people in Washington have far too much time on their hands.

[4] Found in Arlington, VA. Seriously great hamburgers.

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