The Wonks' Loya Jirga


New York Times

December 15, 2004

You're probably sitting by the phone today waiting for that last-minute invitation to the White House economic summit that's going to start tomorrow in Washington. You know, because you've been to conferences and watched C-Span, the organizing principle of life in the information age, that the person who sits on the most panel discussions wins. And a panel in the presence of the president of the United States - that's punditus maximus! That's where all policy-minded C.E.O.'s and aspiring public intellectuals need to be.

As you are sitting there waiting for the call, you are probably rehearsing those finely crafted sycophancy bursts that will capture the president's fancy: "You don't know how right you are, Mr. President. ... As you so aptly observed in your second State of the Union address. ..."

But before you get too deep into your preparations, it's important to step back and understand the context of the event and how you as an aspiring policy wonk might best utilize it to climb to fame and influence.

The first thing you need to know is that the subject of the summit is not the subject of the summit. That's because the subject of all executive branch dramaturgy is the president himself. No matter who is talking, all cameras will be fixed on him.

As the first pseudo-event of the second term, this gabfest is meant to give President Bush a chance to show his more deliberative, bipartisan and intellectual side - to really let his inner Cornel West out for a spree. Your role as a symposiast is to give the president something to nod thoughtfully about.

Second, it's important to understand that this week's summit (unofficial title: Why President Bush Is Right About Everything) may not feature the widest possible range of views. This is true of all presidential policy summits. That's in part because the staff members who organize these things are rightfully terrified that something newsworthy might happen, and have taken precautions.

But it's also because policy johnnies are incapable of intelligent thought in the presence of all that power. Something hormonal happens to them, and they start slobbering, preening and jibbering like Vegas crazies in the presence of Engelbert Humperdinck. They're supposed to be talking payroll tax reform, but soon everybody's underwear is flying onstage in a desperate bid for alpha-male attention.

Third, you have to remember that Republicans have a different relationship to ideas than Democrats. When Democrats open their mouths, they try to say something interesting. If the true thing is obvious and boring, the liberal person will go off and say something original, even if it is completely idiotic. This is how deconstructionism got started.

Republicans are less concerned with displaying their own cleverness. When they actually stumble upon an idea, they are so delighted they regurgitate it over and over again. Where others might favor elaboration, Republicans favor repetition.

Fourth, when addressing a Republican crowd, especially one including President Bush, three Henry James references per presentation are more than sufficient. Actually, it's better to quote down. Instead of citing a great intellectual, it's better to cite a wise but ordinary person with a poignant, uplifting life story (in Washington jargon, a W.B.O.P.W.A.P.U.L.S.).

"Mr. President, I was on my way to a faith-based soup kitchen, where I lead Bible study for the alcoholic children of recovering Wahhabis, when I ran into Luis, who lost his job at the ANWR Energy Company because of junk lawsuit costs, and he was saying he prays every night for a personal Social Security account that will offer him incentives to work, save and invest." Stories like this confirm the essential wisdom of the common people.

I hope that these tips will prove useful and that you will work hard to seize this moment. For the past three years, the foreign policy intellectuals have hogged all the attention, carefully positioning themselves for future secretary of state nominations (foreign policy intellectuals don't have permanent friends - they just have permanent interests).

But now it is springtime for the domestic policy intellectuals. This is the moment to show how your pension benefit index formula would alter world history for the better. The wonks' loya jirga starting tomorrow is your chance to shine - and get a free White House coffee mug.

Isn't that your phone tinkling in the background?