ometimes I get worried about the Deep State, the sinister substructure that many Trump supporters believe operates invisibly beneath the institutions of the federal government, consolidating awesome power in the hands of the few at the expense of the rest of us. Then I go read a column by Joe Davidson and I immediately feel better.
Joe—I feel entitled, as an avid reader, to call him by his first name, and I hope he feels free to call me Andy—anyway, Joe writes the Federal Insider column for the Washington Post. Among other things, he serves as a symbol of the dramatic turn the newspaper has taken in the last several years. Like many Washington institutions, our hometown paper has become much less bashful about imposing its ideological sympathies on its customers. For a while there, under the nearly 20-year editorship of Len Downie, the Post gave readers the impression that it was working to keep the political leanings of its writers and editors out of the news columns. Downie stretched his attempts at political neutrality to almost comical extremes; he didn’t even vote. But Downie is long gone, and the Post’s new generation of writers and editors, ideologically speaking, lets the freak flag fly, as we used to say before most of them were born.
Since the 1930s, the Post has covered the federal workforce as a kind of public obligation in a company town, singling out employees of the region’s most important employer the way the Peoria Journal might cover soy farmers or the Chicago Tribune might cover emergency-room personnel. Roughly one in every seven workers in the Washington, D.C., metro area works for the federal government, and the Post’s Federal Diary column offered daily advice on how best to handle situations peculiar to career civil servants—everything from retirement plans and sick leave to workplace safety rules and the schedule of shuttle buses that circle the vast employee parking lots. There was something almost homey about the Federal Diary. Financial adviser and career counselor, advocate and amanuensis, guide and guru: The column’s service to its readership was comprehensive—a “Hints from Heloise” for bureaucrats.
Last year the Post’s editors said goodbye to all that stuff. They evidently reached the conclusion that the region’s federal workforce wasn’t a constituency but a kind of minority group whose rights were under continuous assault and whose interests must be protected and advanced. This is a different journalistic obligation from just doing right by the working folk of the company town. Last year the Federal Diary was ditched and replaced by the Federal Insider, and the insider was Joe Davidson, a former Post reporter who at one time worked as a “consulting editor” for Jesse Jackson, a job that must keep a fellow busy.
Even among columnists for the Post, where first-rate reporters are often plucked from the ranks and honored with the chance to become second-rate opinion columnists, Joe stands out for his consistency of theme, tone, and point of view. Sometimes you have to glance at the top of the page, or flip to the top of the screen, to check the date, since you could swear you read this same column yesterday, or maybe the day before. Week after week, no matter how conditions may change, it is the same dark world Joe explores and invites his readers into. In this world, the federal workforce is in a state of perpetual crisis, with existential threats emanating from Capitol Hill and, since January 21, from the Oval Office. And only the power of collective action, undertaken immediately, can save their jobs. Joe must be a nervous wreck.
You can see a good example of the Davidson approach in his treatment of the government’s budget. The Obama administration actually froze federal pay for three years and required workers to increase contributions to their retirement funds. President Trump’s proposed budget requires workers to increase retirement contributions too, but it also gives them one of the largest pay increases in years—1.6 percent—and awards them six weeks of parental leave. (Thanks, Ivanka!) In its specifics, the Trump budget mimics trends in private employment, where yearly increases in employees’ retirement contributions are becoming standard.
Joe was outraged that Trump’s budget was no more stingy, and in fact much more generous, than the Obama average. Even though he stiffed federal workers in practice, President Obama praised them in his rhetoric. Trump, on the other hand, says mean things about bureaucrats. So Joe began his article about Trump’s budget proposal on this note: “Perhaps only the heartlessness the president’s budget demonstrates for the poor, the hungry and the sick exceeds the billionaire’s absence of empathy for the federal employees who serve them.” It may take you a while to unwind that sentence, what with a lack of heart exceeding an absence of empathy and a budget that’s missing bodily organs (what would a hearted budget look like, I wonder). The most revealing point about Joe’s opening is the implicit picture of the work that bureaucrats do: They serve the poor, feed the hungry, and heal the sick.
And no doubt some of them do! But it is a rather romanticized picture of how the 2.5 million federal workers spend their day. (Fun fact: The number of people employed at all levels of government in the U.S. is nearly twice the number of manufacturing workers.) Joe spends more column inches attacking anyone who threatens the civil service than he does describing what it is, precisely, that any particular civil servant does. But when he does get down to particulars, we find one bureaucrat who “conducts lifesaving research on parasitic livestock diseases,” another who “led U.S. humanitarian efforts in war-torn Syria” (he really said “war-torn”). Still another “designs innovative wheel chairs to help disabled veterans.” It’s saintly work, but somebody’s got to do it.
Nothing fails to shake Joe’s insistence on the competence and benevolence of federal employees. That includes the most horrific lapse in government functioning in recent memory, the general breakdown of the Veterans Administration’s health-care system. The depth of the disaster has been understood for more than four years. Even so, this spring saw the release of several independent reports describing still more appalling conditions at VA hospitals.
The Federal Insider’s response was a column offering long exculpatory quotes from the VA secretary. We learn that the reports are “good news about how the department reacts to problems.” (Too bad the reaction time is more than four years.) “This is a VA that acknowledges it has problems,” the secretary told Joe. (Better late than never.) Then the secretary complained about “the drumbeat of negativity” that VA employees are forced to endure from the press. (Not from Joe!) And only then does Joe’s column tell us what the recent reports found: hospital dinners and meal carts overrun with cockroaches, food stored on kitchen floors in open containers, delayed and inept responses to vets calling a suicide hotline.
But take heart, America. Joe writes that he recently made a test call to the hotline and it was promptly answered. “That’s good service,” he says. Plus, “it’s worth noting that veterans generally praise the department’s health care,” Joe writes, “once it’s delivered.” With a side dish of roaches.
So why does reading the Federal Insider make me feel better about the Deep State? Because I believe Joe, despite his journalistic flaws, really is a federal insider; he really does show us, even inadvertently, what’s really going on in those concrete piles that house OSHA and NOAA and DOT.
The answer is: not much.
And whatever work is being done is probably too poorly executed to threaten the republic, as Deep State believers fear. We may think that worker bees of the administrative-corporate-bureaucratic complex are busy undermining the country’s civil society. But no: They’re reading Joe, wondering about their retirement fund, trying to hide the hospital food, maybe even sending our money to war-torn Syria. The Deep State, Joe’s work reveals, is run by people like the rest of us, drudges and working stiffs, too worried about finding a parking space near the shuttle bus to overthrow the government. There’s only so much you can expect from a public servant.