So you want to join the Trump Administration? Be a special assistant to a Cabinet secretary? Carry a briefcase in the White House?
I get it. I did too, out of law school and fresh from a clerkship in 1984. And I was lucky — very lucky — to work for two great attorneys general, William French Smith and Edwin Meese, and then White House Counsel Fred Fielding and his deputy Dick Hauser as they served as the personal lawyer for Ronald Reagan. Heady stuff when you are in your 20s. Of course you want to do such things. Ambition to serve at the highest levels of the most powerful government in the world is a powerful thing. The Reagan White House and the Smith and Meese Justice Departments were great places to be seen and not heard, to listen, learn and be useful.
Peggy Noonan at the end of one hall, scribbling away the poetry that lifted Ronald Reagan’s words often. A future Chief Justice in the office next door. Mark Levin as a Chief of Staff at DOJ. These are what “ministries of all talents” bring together: lots of young people who will, as George Washington put it, find in the blink of an eye that they “have grown old in the service of my country.” Four years go by very quickly. The departing Obama aides will tell you eight in fact fly by.
Then you turn around and everyone at the reunions is over 60. It happens. So it’s great to serve, and by doing so aquire skills sets and experiences that will prepare you for future service with even greater responsibilities.
But … there’s always a but.
It can be very dangerous indeed. Pride accompanies the entry ID pass that you drape over your neck and that you tuck discreetly away. And often hubris. Without careful, often-exercised care you will quickly forget all that you do not know. If there is any lesson in 2016 it is that 95 percent of the experts did not know what they did not know. Thus the collective shock of election night across both parties’ elites and all of media, legacy and social, cable and radio, print and podcast.
To avoid that trap and some other ones, three key rules.
First, begin every morning by looking in the mirror and telling yourself you are young and inexperienced, you are here to serve and learn, not puff out and climb up. You won’t believe it — at least not for long. But the practice might occasionally put you in a mind to actually learn something from an unexpected source or to revisit a long held and cherished assumption that perhaps, just maybe, you are completely wrong to hold.
Second, prep yourself for the almost inevitable request by someone in your new circle at work and at play to cut a corner, large or small. That’s how espionage used to work, before cyber thieves cut round most of the recruitment process: Get any player of any rank to do one small thing that was out of bounds. One new friend asking for one small favor. That’s the trip, the stumble that starts the fall.
You just have to be prepared to say “Oh no, that’s out of the question. Can’t happen. Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture. Not gonna do it,” as Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey used to say as he played the man of complete integrity, President George H.W. Bush. There are enemies of your integrity, both foreign and domestic. There are names infamous for their betrayals — John Walker, Robert Hanssen, Edward Snowden — and a much longer list of grifters who ended up at best disgraced and at worst ruined and rightly behind bars because they abused their offices and trust for small amounts or even smaller perks. The vast majority of former special assistants and deputy assistant secretaries end their time without a serious ethical pratfall. Resolve every day to be in that club and not the other. Thus you will ready when the invitation to violate your duty comes.
A much more ubiquitous sort of corruption abounds and it isn’t illegal in the least. There’s a magnificent essay by C. S. Lewis titled “The Inner Ring,” which you can Google right now and profit from immensely. It had nothing to do with Lewis’ famous body of Christian apologetics but is about ambition. It was originally delivered as a Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. In wartime. And to very bright, very ambitious young students, which most of new arrivals in Washington will almost certainly have only recently been. It should be issued to everyone along with the SF-86 and SF-172.
Which brings me to suggestion three: Whatever your religious faith and even, perhaps especially if you have none at all, find a faith community inside the Beltway and join it. Really join it. Doesn’t matter if the doctrines make little sense to you because you have long been unchurched. But any congregation of any faith that is serving the community in the ways most good churches, synagogues mosques and temples do will be the best thing for your soul in a city that has consumed a lot of them.
“When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising,” Lewis told the undergraduates 72 years ago. If you read a column directed at ambitious young people it’s likely you are one or know one. “Fame is the highest ambition of the noblest minds” America’s most famous Framer and Broadway idol observed long ago. We are in for a very Hamiltonian few years in D.C. and President-elect Trump seems likely to attract and to want to have his senior aides and Cabinet secretaries seek out young “winners” who are indeed looking for that right sort of fame. Hamilton was right, per usual, but his final resting place in Trinity Church Cemetery on south Broadway is a caution. His quest for fame ended in a blink, his vast ambition ended by a scoundrel and a string of bad choices. His collision with Aaron Burr escalated quickly after a long brewing, and spiraled. Some things don’t change.
Realize that everyone ends up planted — or scattered — usually much sooner than expected, and that you really cannot achieve what you want, cannot earn a place in history in your first job (unless it is the wrong sort of history), and that the years ahead will be exciting and very satisfactory, the friendships forged deep and lasting, and the accomplishments significant. If…
This column was originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com.