Upon reading the lead story in today's Washington Post the thought occurred that if I weren't a dissident journalist I'd make a hell of a good member of the establishment. The thought quickly dissipated even though my futile arguments that the president needed multiple sources of intelligence information rather than having it all filtered through one assistant had now been recommended by an official panel.
My idea was that on such matters the president should have at least as many sources as a reporter, and besides did you really want to rely on John Negroponte to find out whether death squads were coming back in Central America? But such doubts had been met with the usual blank stares and occasional ex cathedra inference that, unlike the inferer, I didn't really understand.
Yet even with my new high level support, I am still left with a fatal problem. It was the same one faced by the comedian being interviewed:
REPORTER: And to what do you attribute your great. . .
Nothing one says or does in Washington matters if it is said or done before the right time, typically that moment when the media, think tanks and "thoughtful observers" all finally agree it needs to be done - usually upon the suggestion of whoever is in the White House.
What makes this difficult is that Washington - as Phil Hart once said of the Senate - is a place that does things 20 years after they should have been done. Outside of evangelical quarters, there is hardly anywhere in America less comfortable than the capital with unconventional or new ideas.
Even when Henry Kissinger eventually agrees we should get out of Vietnam or the Washington Post finally comes to accept the notion of global warming, that doesn't imply one can suggest such things before the appropriate moment. Absent, for starters, a presidential commission report, a new White House or Pentagon "strategic vision," or a Brookings Institution analysis, offering a new idea is the Washington version of insurrection.
Further, my experience has been that the more high placed is the person to whom one introduces a new idea, the more likely this individual is to be uncomfortable, dismissive, or suddenly in need of another drink. Unchallenged myopia is one of the most cherished privileges of power.
Once an idea has the appropriate imprimatur it is immediately treated as worthy of discussion, advocacy and thoughtful comment. It makes absolutely no difference if the idea is dangerous or absurd - Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan and George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act are recent examples. It is the source and not the logic that matters. Tom Friedman can now lunch out on it, Jim Lehrer can stage one of his turgid faux debates, and Sebastian Mallaby can define it as possessing gravitas, a Washington synonym for mental ponderosity and verbal obesity.
As one who has been putting forth new ideas in Washington for a number of decades, my efforts have earned me such identifications as radical, eccentric, crazy, trouble-maker, and, as late as an introduction last evening, local revolutionary. But I have become absolutely convinced that the problem is not in my ideas but in their novelty. It's not even that they are terminally unacceptable - after all much of what I have advocated has come to pass - but that the other person hasn't been given the talking points with which to respond.
I sympathize with them in a way, though. I remember being annoyed by some of my freshman classmates who started quoting Marx in a course before that part of the reading was even due. On the other hand, I was at the time only a freshman and not a high government official or Washington correspondent for some major publication.
Now that the national commission on intelligence has spoken, it will not change my life in the slightest, however, because the other aspect of this timing business is that precocious thought remains a sin even after the thought itself becomes acceptable. The FBI once had a name for this: Americans who took part in the Spanish civil war were listed in the records as "premature anti-fascists."
Still it was nice to feel normal in Washington if only for a few minutes.