Washington not wasted on the young

Perhaps my favorite work-related week of the year has become the one where I am able to observe college students become exposed to that disease or opportunity known as “Potomac Fever.”

To the cynical older folks among us “Potomac Fever” is a malady to be dreaded. After all, how can one spend all day cussing everything about Washington, D.C., and every action of the federal government, and then consign their best and brightest to a career there? But to the not-yet-jaded college students brimming with a maximum case of idealism a week in the nation’s capital is virtually certain to induce an acute case of “Potomac Fever.”

The symptoms of this “disease” manifest themselves as an unquenchable determination on the part of the student to get to Washington as soon as possible to commence working and rubbing shoulders with those who have proved that one could come to the Capital from small-town Mississippi and become quite the success. The Stennis-Montgomery Association of Mississippi State University is a group of students who are very career-minded, and whose academic interests run the gamut from engineering to education, from fashion merchandizing to communication and, of course, political science. The one thing they have in common is an itch to jump in the middle of current events and public affairs and a growing need to scratch it. It should come as no surprise to anyone that itch, from the Congressional staff and beyond Mississippi, has kept Washington well-stocked with those who came “to town” with a month’s worth of clothes, and found a way to expand that into distinguished careers in public service at the highest level.

The Stennis-Montgomery Association’s Washington Week is given to introducing the college students to those alumni and others who have walked this path before them. It is uncanny how the stories of those who have stayed to become successes on Capitol Hill and environs began in much the same way. This is true whether those successes have been achieved as a Congressional staff member, as a staffer with a government relations organization, a staff member of one of the political parties, an employee of a federal agency or in the private sector. They almost invariably came “to town” with nothing but a faint hope of a sustaining job, all the while promising to forget the clock and do anything asked of them. They have come from places like Lula, Sand Hill, Leland and Iuka.

The success stories are indeed fascinating. Many began by doing “grunt work” in a Capitol Hill mailroom or as a volunteer for one of the political parties. It is there that they learned that Washington is all about networks and the news of one’s tireless work getting passed through those networks. Many with quite humble initiations into the Washington scene have risen to jobs as chiefs of staff for members of Congress, key White House staffers, administrators with the Democratic and Republican parties, career specialists in the federal government, highly successful members of the government relations community, leaders of various foundations and careers in the D.C. metro area private sector.

The impressions left by those who have “made it” on those who aspire to follow them are unmistakable. Perhaps it is that leap from the pages of government textbooks, public policy lectures and the news channels to the real thing that makes “Potomac Fever” such an infectious disease. Often, these students, most of whom are from small town Mississippi, discover the unexpected from information presented during their week on the national government’s ground zero. One fact that tends to surprise is that, in contrast to the grousing heard at home around the dinner table or the impression gained from increasingly partisan news channels, party politics is often secondary to the 10 to 12 hour work days. Even the party staffers themselves give a nod of respect to their counterparts in the opposite party, and then press on to take care of business.

As one who gets to tag along as an observer of those whose desire to get into the mix in Washington begins to burn “white hot” and also as one who can take no end of satisfaction in those who have already succeeded in discovering their means of contributing, a couple of thoughts come to mind. First, it is a clear sign that we are indeed in possession of a great and diverse democratic republic when young people from tiny hamlets all over the country can parlay hard work and a respect for the role of government are allowed to go as far as their ambition will take them in public service. In addition, these students get to see first hand how patience and humility in getting started, followed by hard work and perseverance portend success in their pursuit of a career making government work for all of us.

Hopefully we don’t find a cure for their idealism or “Potomac Fever” anytime soon.

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