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Washington, DC is a frequent target of scorn. Politicians are running against so-called “Washington insiders” and degrading the Capitol city to a swamp.
It’s been like that for a long time. Washington has always been considered a swamp, says writer and journalist Timothy Noah.
“Even before it was built, Thomas Treadwell, an anti-Federalist senator from New York State, called it a political hive where all the drones of society must be collected to feed on the honey of the earth.”
Yes, some hope to get rich from federal contracts and corruptly influence government policy, but Noah, whose latest The New Republic the article is titled “Washington is not a swamp”, emphasizes that there is “that other” Washington that is rarely talked about. “It’s the Washington that those of us who live here encounter on a daily basis,” he says.
For them, the Quartier symbolizes a place where good can be done.
Drawn to work in DC by a sense of mission
It was in “that other” Washington, just outside the city, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where the COVID-19 vaccine blueprint was developed by researchers working for the government. .
“The COVID vaccine blueprint was not invented by private companies,” says Noah. “It was invented by a small group of people at the NIH. And the reason private industry was able to produce vaccines so quickly was because the basic research had already been done.”
Federal agencies do everything from overseeing more than 400 national parks to processing tax returns to designing complex telescopes and launching them into deep space.
One such agency is part of Customs and Border Protection and is working to stop the importation of goods produced by forced labor into countries like China. It is headed by Eric Choy, who says forced labor is a global problem around the world and that around 25 million people “suffer in conditions of forced labour”.
Choy joined CBP after spending time in the military. Like many in government, he says he is drawn to the job by a sense of mission.
“Our homeland and our values are those things that have always drawn me to be a part of – of service, of something bigger and bigger than me,” he says.
Choy, whose CBP team was honored with the Partnership for Public Service in America medal last year, grew up in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, in a community with government officials, members of the military, and members of Congress. . He doesn’t see Washington as a swamp.
“Whether it’s to improve the lives of people in specific neighborhoods, or housing, or the climate and the environment, it doesn’t matter where you sit, when it comes to positioning, everyone seems to come here to work” , he said.
It’s “easy to turn DC into a punching bag,” says Christy Delafield, who works for FHI 360, a nonprofit aid group that applies science to human development challenges such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.
But Delafield, who moved to DC in 2004, sees the city as a place where decisions are made that affect lives. “I [thought I] could be involved in building those systems, whether it’s the global health system, the financial systems, the humanitarian aid systems, how do we make that work as well as possible,” says -she.
There are a number of different Washingtons, she says.
“There are a lot of different layers. I’ve met natives of Washington who know the history and love the school system and have fond memories and stories of growing up here. And I’ve met community members who feel a bit like the national dialogue around Washington kind of ignores the fact that there are people living there,” Delafield says.
Democrats and Republicans, she says, are working “really hard from different angles to try to make the world a better place while they’re in DC.”
This sense of purpose also extends to those who work in Congress.
Congressional staffer Ryan O’Toole moved to Washington from Ohio in hopes of bringing his community’s small-town values to the Capitol.
“I come from a sort of politically active family in that we always had conversations about American political history around the dinner table,” he says. “I think that kind of started the basis of my wanting to have some kind of civic engagement in my professional life.”
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On Jan. 6 of last year, O’Toole was in the House chamber with his boss, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as the Capitol was packed with a pro-Trump crowd. He recalled seeing Senate staffers carrying the boxes containing the Electoral College votes to safety. He calls them unsung heroes.
“Without them, we would have had a deeper major constitutional crisis than we had,” O’Toole said. “I think examples like that exist in our government. And it certainly goes against the characterization that it’s a swamp.”
Washington is not a swamp, not even literally.
It is a community, large and diverse. Sure, there are those who come to become rich or famous, but in some four decades as a journalist covering the city and its institutions, I’ve found many more who say they’re just trying to do good.
Brian Naylor, who joined NPR in 1982 and covered both the White House and Congress, is retiring this month.