I Grew Up in 'The Deep State'

There’s Nothing Deep About It, It’s Really Quite Superficial

People go on and on about the ‘deep state’ and ‘draining the swamp’ in D.C. such that one might actually be lead to believe that there exists a sinister Deep State in Washington D.C. and that the city, given the summer humidity, was actually built on a swamp.  Let me dispel the second myth first: it was built on a riverbank.  George Washington chose the site intentionally far from the swampy Chesapeake Bay and close to the Potomac River and the port city of Georgetown.  As for the first, D.C. is really about as deep as an episode of Days of Our Lives—allow me to share with you the two reigning principles of Washington D.C. that are similar to the rules of Hollywood: it’s highly nepotistic and everyone is in bed with everyone else.  

If D.C. was actually built on a swamp the buildings wouldn’t stand and if D.C. was actually a state that would be an improvement and quite fair to the disenfranchised residents of Washington D.C. who don’t have a voting senator.  As for the suspicion that the federal government in D.C. operates as a Deep State, the reality is there is a lot of turnover in D.C. Many come and go with elections.  The solid core are mostly people that work low or mid-level office jobs in the federal government, so it’s not them we’re talking about, is it?  No, it’s the campaign fundraisers, the strategic advisors, the think tankers, political appointees, and the journalists we think of when we mean the deep state, and those people are all in cahoots with one another—it’s an incestuous pod, no doubt about it.  I’m not involved in any of it in a deep way but I grew up around it, albeit quite on the periphery, so here’s what I can tell you about what it’s like growing up…In The Deep State (duh, duh duuuuuhhhhh).

"They Found Chandra”

I don’t remember ever thinking it was particularly special to grow up in Washington D.C.  My mother worked in an office down near the National Mall and she would do freelance work sometimes on a weekend and my sister and I would obligatorily join her.  I enjoyed it—I remember making my first magazine called Blue Streak, amusing myself with the plethora of office pens, endless reams of multi-colored paper and multiple Xerox machines.  There were even a couple of slanted drawing desks where I could sit and sketch.  She made a family rule that every time she brought us we would have to visit a different museum or monument so I’ve pretty much been everywhere downtown. The only time I recall being annoyed to live in D.C. was when I won a student national essay contest: winners were chosen from every state (and D.C.) and the prize was an all-expense paid trip to…Washington D.C.  How bummed was I. So, people from Hawaii and Wisconsin got to get in an airplane but I got driven in a car for all of 15 minutes to a hotel downtown where they had events (you five pretend to be American diplomats, and you five are North Korean diplomats, and they might have nuclear weapons: mock negotiate, ok, now let’s go have dinner at a South Korean restaurant) planned for us.  I didn’t think to myself how lucky am I to be in a special place that everyone else wanted to visit—I thought I should get a plane ticket to Hawaii.

It’s strange when the place you grow up, your “hometown” is on the global news everyday.  It’s like all this stuff is happening nearby but it’s far at the same time.  It’s far and not far.  D.C. is small at the end of the day—it’s not six degrees of separation, it’s one or two, for some people.  I grew up in Northwest D.C. and at that time for me, Northwest D.C. was D.C.  We didn’t go outside of it much.  Mayor Barry made a PSAT summer program and it was on the “other” side of the city, so we drove there for that, I tutored at an elementary school, otherwise NE, SW, SE were not on the radar of Northwest residents—it was highly segregated and I lived on the white side of town with a brief stint in NE soon before leaving for college.  There was absolutely nothing for teenagers to do socially in D.C.  It’s a dead town in the evenings and we weren’t even allowed to enter billiard halls because alcohol is served there and you would need to be 18 to even go inside.  Some people would get fake ID’s just to enter a place and play pool, not to drink.  Northwest D.C. was an extremely boring place to grow up.  I went to high art museums and learned a lot of history but very little in terms of let’s say youth or community culture, other parts of the city had vibrant music scenes but in Northwest the only thing to do at night was hang out in someone’s parents’ basement or your old elementary school’s park.

Since you were more focused on your friends, you didn’t really notice or care much what your friends’ parents did.  To be honest, you barely noticed or cared what your own parents did.  So, when a name would appear on the news, you’d be like, hmmm…is that so-and-so’s Dad who emailed his password in a phishing scam and now all the DNC emails just got hacked?  Oh yeah, I think it is.  You knew the last name because you went to the same school with their kids, their son or daughter was in your class or your siblings’ class, or you played on the same softball team, or went to the same religious spot to worship.  Close but far.  I remember Chelsea Clinton sitting a few tables away in the lunchroom when they were trying to pretend they might actually send her to a D.C. public school (yeah right), and then again on the steps of a house party with the secret service agents nearby.  Close but far.  

I happened to be a White House intern maybe a year or so before the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  It was terribly boring in the press office of the U.S. Trade Representative (I remember a press release about turtles?) but there’s a photo somewhere of Bill Clinton and a slew of us standing on the White House steps.  When he went through shaking hands he recognized my fellow intern’s face because he had once met her brother and she was shocked that he would notice; I think he’s known for remembering faces and names, but still that’s pretty impressive.  We wondered if an aide had planted the info but that seemed far-fetched so we decided he really did recognize her.  I got a free sweatshirt out of it that I still wear.  I recall my white female supervisor saying I should wear stockings just like they tried to tell Michelle Obama to do when she got to D.C.  (I don’t get the D.C. hangup with stockings but it’s definitely a thing—she was bucking a deep trend.)

This might sound like a strangely morbid activity but one day I got a call or text like, ‘come on over they found Chandra.’  I walked over a few blocks to our family friends’ house and we hung around just checking out the scene.  It was probably before the story had even really broke, because I don’t recall a slew of media, they either had come and left, which I doubt, or hadn’t gotten word yet.  Her house was right next to Rock Creek park, and Chandra Levy’s body had just been found nearby.  The Chief of Police, Charles Ramsey, had set up an area for his team right next to my friend’s house and I do recall him being interviewed by at least one news team.  

It was a typical D.C. sweltering day, and my friend’s younger brother was making a business opportunity out of the bustling activity on his usually serene doorstep wheeling out chilled water bottles and selling them to the police officers for a couple of bucks each.  I saw him bring out a cooler and whip out the bottles and the whole image of the scene is burned in my mind, really.  Thinking about it now, everything is typical of what teenagers would do—hang around somewhere nearby when something out of the ordinary happens, sell some drinks, but the surrounding cause of it, the backdrop of it, is of national importance and involved a seedy murder covered up amidst a political scandal. 

It’s all typical and yet atypical at the same time.  So, again, nothing struck me as particularly odd at the time—or perhaps it did subconsciously, and that’s why it has stuck in my mind so fixedly—but looking back it seems surreal, bizarre, strange. These three young women and their situations: Chelsea, Chandra, Monica—were very, very, far from me, but at the same time, a bit too close. I certainly made no effort ever to pursue a career in Washington D.C., although I never reflected on why that might be until now—was I impacted subliminally by these experiences? Perhaps.

“When I Spoke With Snowden”

Lacking anything better to do on an evening when people feel they should do something, I once attended an intimate New Year’s dinner party; the only other brown-skinned person besides me was “the help.”  Sometimes in D.C. they try to avoid that—I remember a dinner party being arranged for Julian Bond (when the distinguished civil rights activist was still alive) and they realized that the only other black person might be the food server.  They decided this would be a faux-pas and once they realized this were calling each other in a flurry trying to figure out if the server was actually black.  The problem was she was so light skinned, they really couldn’t tell!  Lot’s of back and forth on that one (was she maybe Dominican?  Did that count as black?)—I almost wrote a short script about it, for a series I wanted to do called The Establishment.  Can you imagine calling this person up and being like: “are you actually black?  Because if you are we can’t hire you for this dinner party because we might look like we are racists."  That’s liberal D.C. for you—Dems all around, hypocrisy at it’s finest.

Back to the New Year’s party—at one point I realized I was perhaps the only person there who hadn’t personally met or spoken with Edward Snowden.  The person on my right was a prominent journalist who introduced himself to me as “the leading expert on the NSA.”  He literally said that.  “I’m the leading expert on the NSA.”  I thought that was a pompous introduction but maybe he actually is the leading expert, how should I know? It was funny to me because in the elevator on the way there I heard someone whom I knew ask his wife, “do we work in the same place?”  “In the same place” being code for the IC (Intelligence Community), in this case the CIA or NSA.  So, long story short, his wife works at the NSA.  He did a cover story on Snowden for a well-known magazine and he publishes work on the NSA, where his wife works.  During the dinner a well-known former whistleblower who usually attends but couldn’t this year phoned in and recounted a conversation he had with Snowden, and that started a cacophony around the table: “Well, When I Spoke With Him…”. I was like, don’t everybody jump in at once!  The point is, this table was of journalists, academics, people who work in the IC (except for me, I honestly just ended up there as a pity invite) and they are all in bed with each other—literally and figuratively.  

Two Degrees of Separation

When I got to college I learned that a lot of Americans don’t think people actually live in D.C.  When students asked me where I was from I would say D.C. and they would follow up with, where, what town?  And I would repeat in D.C.  Oh, people live there?  Alternatively, I would speak with some who would say they were from D.C. and when I asked which neighborhood they named a town that I’d never heard of way out in Maryland or Virginia.  It prompted a Facebook group among my D.C. friends, “When I Say I’m From D.C., It Means I’m ACTUALLY from D.C.”

As time passes you see a Facebook “friend” who used to drive you to sports practice in high school get married and the sitting President attends her wedding.  Then you realize her Dad is a former campaign manager for the previous sitting President of the same party.  The Harvard prof who went viral for indignation at accidentally being overcharged like what 32 cents was it—he was your class (or the next classes’?) valedictorian, also a Facebook “friend,” before you closed FB out of a concern about data security, that time shows to be a valid one. Mind you, I went to public school—imagine what the private school kids could tell you!

So, what else do you want to know?  The CIA?  It’s a dull building, lots of narrow hallways.  There’s a koi pond outside!  You can buy shea butter emblazoned with their logo in the gift shop—who woulda thunk? The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is way more interesting—it was designed to look like canyons and is made of glass inside and out with a massive hollow interior space many stories tall.  The West Wing of the White House?  Super small!  Designed for midgets!  They must photograph the Oval Office exclusively with a fish eye lens; there was a two-seater couch when I saw it because with a three-seater you’re barely able to walk around.  In the famous raid photo in the Situation Room they are all huddled so close not because of the intensity of the moment, there’s really no space in there!  It’s a bit awe-inspiring actually to walk through those halls because it represents for some the center of the free world’s power and yet it is characterized by quaintness and a certain lack of grandeur—it’s fancy for sure: the intricate curtains, the plush carpets, the highly cared for antique furniture—but the feeling of it is intimate and cozy—it intimidates the way a well-laid table setting would do but not with grand overwhelm such as the atrium of a castle or palace.  

I’ve got lots more little story sketches about D.C. but I won’t bore you.  I’m not an insider, I’m like an outsider looking in from within.  At the end of the day, D.C.’s biggest open secret is that it’s actually quite a yawn on the day to day for most people who live and work there.  Northwest D.C. frustrates me, too—it’s hypocritical, full of the over-ambitious and over-privileged, it’s conniving and scheming but it’s also meticulous and solid, homey and warm.  Christmastime in D.C.—when there’s a round of family parties at houses in the city, hearths twinkling and fire places burning, tables of cookies, baked brie, and honeyed ham, is a specific cultural scene I’ve never experienced in quite the same way anywhere else (and not just because of the show-off photos on the mantle with the First Lady).  There’s something established, and stately, and enduring about Washington D.C.—I’m not sure if it’s the brick houses, or the tree-lined streets, or the marble monuments nearby but there’s a certain calmness and comfort to D.C., a stolidity, that might be a sentiment shared by those who grew up in certain neighborhoods.  We all probably love and dislike things about our hometowns—maybe not everyone’s hometowns are always in the news, but love it or hate it, my hometown is what everybody is now calling “The Deep State.” But, please let’s not pretend there is anything that deep about it—ignore the parties (I mean political) and just look at who is married to whom, who is sleeping with whom, and who is related to whom, and you’ll understand everything you need to know about the depth of this State.

Song choice for this post: ODESZA—How Did I Get Here?

Don’t we all wish we knew!

Lyrics: How did I get here (repeat 4x), It’s sad but it’s true, How society says her life is already over, Nothing to do and there’s nothing to say.

Postscript/TLDR: Let me add an important clarification, or concise summary, if you will of the information above.  In the tech world it might be called a TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read).  As an example, most people outside Washington would look at the relationship between Kelly Anne Conway and George Conway as unique and interesting, like, hmm, how does that work?  She works for Trump and he’s on the news criticizing Trump.  What outsiders don’t get is that their relationship is typical, not atypical of Washington.  In the power-hungry Washingtonian mind, it doesn’t make as much sense to be married to someone who works in the exact ideological or professional field, it’s strategically advantageous to be aligned with someone outside your field.  It’s not as helpful for a journalist to be married to another journalist, it’s more strategic for a journalist to be married to an agency head at say, the FBI, then the journalist can get access to information to report and the FBI head can strategically leak information to serve their own personal or inter-agency goals.  A lot of mainstream news is actually different federal government agencies talking to each other not necessarily the American people.  So, before you assume D.C. liaisons are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, in my humble experience, D.C. works through those opposing alliances and it’s the norm rather than the exception—it’s a system of power sharing and a strategic game for their own professional survival and those of their agency’s interests.  Everyone in D.C. wants to be an insider so they hedge in their relationships for broader access and influence.