Get some cynicism or go home

by Ken Feltman

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
– George Bernard Shaw

Long-time Washington dwellers are cleaning up. They are doing their best to grab every dollar, yen, lira, won, peso, rupee, yuan, Euro, schilling or baht that the foreigners brought with them or can import. And the foreigners are happy to be fleeced. They think they are establishing a “presence” in the city that they – and their fleecers – believe is the new financial capital of the world.

Wherever you go you become entangled in camera crews, with press ID tags dangling from their necks. They miss their prey as often as not and end up interviewing each other, chattering in Mandarin more often than any other language. In a town full of gray-suited, gray-haired and gray-eyed men, it is hard to pick the senators from the lobbyists. The hat-in-hand American bankers and businessmen, also recently arrived, are easier to identify: They look confused as they zip around in chauffeur-driven vehicles. Disdain is their mood. The foreigners are bright-eyed, shiny faced – but equally confused.

Misinformation is no longer an American monopoly

That is the heart of the problem. The newcomers stand out. In a polyglot, multi-racial city, they manage to look different, as if they just fell off today’s version of the old turnip truck. They are as out of place in Washington as Americans abroad are reputedly out of place in most anyplace that does not serve greasy fast food.

We need to help our visitors. It is in our best interest: If we do not help them, who knows what they will report and how they will report it? One thing the United States does not need is more misinformation going out to people all over the world. We have enough of that from our own domestic news outlets.

In the interest of preserving the American media’s right to spread confusing, inaccurate information about the U.S. with minimal foreign competition, I will help the newcomers adjust to this cruel capital. Here are a few rules for getting along and getting what you want in New Rome on the Potomac.

1. Do not stick together with other newcomers who are also from your country. Face it, they can’t help you. They are brand new in town, too. What do they know that you don’t? Try to befriend a few Americans. If you can’t stomach Americans, at least make friends with a few foreigners, preferably a few from one country and a few others from different countries from around the world.

2. Do not live ostentatiously. The Americans who can help you avoid ostentation about everything except where they send their children to school. Remember what President-Elect Nixon said as he reviewed dozens of files of potential appointees: “This one went to Harvard, the last one went to Yale. Harvard, Yale, Yale, Harvard. Didn’t anybody go to Oklahoma State?” Yes, they did. And later they ran for Congress and now chair important committees. It’s their children who go to the “right” schools.

“In” places are out

3. Do not waste time going to “in” clubs and restaurants. They are filled with pretty people who really belong in Hollywood or New York. Now they’re here, being seen, along with everyone else who is here to be seen. They cannot help you, unless you’re interested in a career in the entertainment industry. The “in” places are a tremendous drain on the pocketbook, too. The people who go to the “in” places have money, not influence or power.

4. Washington is filled with unpretentious but excellent restaurants. Go where you will meet the people you need to meet. Get known as a person who knows the best “unknown” places to eat. People will start to accept your invitations. It is better to be known as a person who discovers good restaurants than as a person who follows the crowd to the trendy places. Check reviews in Zagat and the “cheap eats” sections of local magazines and newspapers.

5. Do not think you need palatial office space. If you are doing what you should be doing, most of your work is not at your office – it’s outside, on Capitol Hill, the agencies and cabinet departments. So don’t get comfortable in the office and expect people to come to you. Presume that everyone in Washington thinks he or she is more important than you are. Go to them.

6. Do not believe that living in a prestigious neighborhood is necessary. Fancy neighborhoods tend to be filled with status seekers. Remember, the folks who make most of the decisions, who have the power, are from small towns or hardscrabble urban neighborhoods. They are in Washington to make a difference, not to make a splash. Addresses do not impress them. Solutions to problems do.

Find people who will teach you

7. Do not assume that you need to hire the biggest or most expensive lobbying or legal help. You are your own best advocate. Get guidance from people you can talk with and learn from, not people who tell you they will handle everything. Yes, it’s harder to find that sort of help. But it’s worth it.

8. Political party affiliation is important, but where you’re from is also important. Political parties gain and lose control. Geography is less volatile. During the last administration, the Texas State Society sponsored the desired social events. Boots and cowboy hats were everywhere. Now, being from Chicago gives you a leg up. The Illinois State Society is the big draw and Hawaii is not far behind. But you’re not from any state, you say? Oh, yes you are. Somewhere in the U.S., the company or cause that brought you to Washington has it’s headquarters or a major facility. That’s your home, whether it’s in South Dakota or South Carolina. Get to know it. The folks out there are your natural friends. They have a vested interest in your success.

9. Do not ignore the young people that you meet. Bright, idealistic young people have power in Washington because they are willing to put in the hours necessary to learn all about an issue or an industry. The elected officials and high appointed officials have too busy a schedule to know all the things that they should know. Blow off one young person in Washington and you might never understand why you are a failure. Remember, those kids are always communicating with each other.

10. Do contribute to charities when asked. Many other countries handle most charitable contributions through the national government. Not so in the U.S. Individual citizens and especially corporations are the major sources of charitable gifts. So if you don’t contribute, you will stand out. And your job is to fit in a little better than the next guy.

People will figure that if you represent a company that has operations in the U.S., you represent a corporate citizen, with all the rights and obligations of U.S. citizenship. You do not need to apologize for being a foreigner. You probably represent a company that creates jobs for Americans. Beside that, all the rest of us are descended from people who came from some other continent. So?

Welcome home.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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