By **Lex Paulson**
I sat in Northwest Washington D.C. two Saturdays ago and processed the news that one of my fellow Congressional staffers was reported killed in Tucson. The Dean for America training where I had met my friend, now Rep. Giffords’s Chief of Staff; the lunch that she and I had eaten together on Capitol Hill last month, still reeling from a painful election.
And now, during a moment sacred to all Congressional staff, when separation between representative and represented disappears and democracy is enacted in simple conversation, the result is mass murder. I didn’t know whether my friend was alive or dead.
There are three habits of mind shared more-or-less universally by those of us who work for Members of Congress. Each of these is, I suggest, useful to the task of pulling drops of wisdom from the stone of last weekend’s horror.
First, access. Our bosses are charged to hear and represent one-half of a million other human beings while trying themselves to maintain something close to a normal human life. Their staff—usually 6 to 10 in the home district, a similar number in Washington—are their sensory organs, and our job is to open ourselves as widely as possible, day in and day out.
One of the first, and very strange, sensations of working in Congress is that of becoming a human metonym. On a phone call, at a community meeting, reading letters, a staffer is not communicated to—we are communicated through, transparent metaphysical conduits to our bosses, the real object of the question or request. The feeling is part dissolution, part theater, a cross between becoming a sponge and wearing an invisible cloak.
One of the first, and very strange, sensations of working in Congress is that of becoming a human metonym.
Being a metonym is a peculiar sensation, and those who have felt it intuitively understand why Rep. Giffords’s “Congress on your Corner” was so important. Because so much of our job is done without our bosses at hand, where we can only imperfectly hear and respond on their behalf, enabling an in-person conversation between the Member and her constituents is a rare and special thing for us. We choose places that are open, central, inviting. I would bet all I own that the first thing the young man in Tucson saw as he approached Rep. Giffords and her interlocutors were the welcoming, purposeful smiles of her staff.
Now here is the bone-chilling part: Members of Congress are metonyms too. If Gabrielle Giffords were a private citizen, she wouldn’t have risked this evil disaster. Members of Congress are targets precisely because they wear the invisible cloak of government, or party, or ideology, or any number of ways they can appear in their constituents’ eyes. What a voter feels about those abstract ideas he directs toward the human being in the cloak, whether those associations are deserved or, as we feel every day, undeserved. (“If you only knew her!” is a staffer’s most common internal refrain.) An attack on the person is an attack on those ideas and the community of citizens and public servants who care about them. That’s why this shooting wounds us so deeply, and why sustaining democracy, in President Kennedy’s words, requires the untiring effort of us all.
A second and co-equal habit of a staffer’s mind is diplomacy. Jürgen Habermas, the greatest political thinker of modern times, argued forcefully that within the simple act of communication lies an ethical code which dignifies each individual and ennobles a democracy. He called this idea Unabgeschlossenheit, the “unforced force of the better argument” prevailing in a dialogue of equals.
These instincts of diplomacy are embedded in the nervous systems of Congressional staffers, who spend their days treating all ideas emanating from their district—even and especially the most dubious ones—as worthy of their time and of their bosses’ consideration. No one could look at that gunman’s mugshot and see a normal human being, yet the habits of mind that could theoretically have prevented the Tucson shooting—discernment, suspicion, exclusion—run counter to a staffer’s every instinct. We are trained in our every interaction to ignore appearance, to dignify every idea, to be respectful ambassadors of the Member and the office she holds. If that changed, our democracy too would change, and not for the better.
Keeping diplomacy and Habermas in mind, I have been alternately stoic and crestfallen as the post-mortem spin tsunamis geared up and started crashing into one another on live TV. “Palin’s crosshairs are to blame.” “Liberal overreaction is to blame.” “Insufficient gun control laws are to blame.” Seeds of truth, sure, but without any honest dialogue to water them.
It is time instead for our leaders to adopt the mindset of those who work in their employ. On television, on the House floor, in the pulpit, around the dinner table, those who command attention must dignify the ideas of their adversaries and create new opportunities for exchange. No law can improve discourse, only leaders can.
Our final habit of mind is synthesis, the weaving of individual stories into a single message or need. My office receives between three and four thousand individual pieces of correspondence a week; add to these the several hundred constituent cases open at any given time and the several dozen meetings fielded by an office during an average workday. Men and women losing homes and jobs, fighting fiercely for better health, or smaller government, or some beacon of justice in their own lives. Our last big job as staffers is to find and report common threads, emerging patterns, the relative incidence of one opinion or another. The ultimate output of this process, when our legislative branch bursts through its procedural inanities, is better public policy that serves a more timely conception of the common good.
What pattern does Tucson reveal to us? Like every human story, this one has strange paths of cause and effect whose contours are still obscure. Nevertheless, particularity, even to an aberrant extreme, does not excuse a staffer from the mission of synthesis, of finding patterns and suggesting a solution. Are the early signs of mental illness as well-known in our schools and communities as they should be? Do the 2.4 million Americans who the CDC says were diagnosed with a mental disorder during inpatient care last year need a better safety net? And yes, is there more as a society we should do to regulate weapons of extraordinarily lethal power? These are serious questions, and one that a responsible Congress and its staff are duty-bound to explore in full.
As it turned out, my friend was not in Arizona, but her director of constituent outreach—a man my age, whose job was bound up directly in these three habits—was slain. From all reports, he embodied and enacted the three ideals above to an almost superhuman extent.
The following Monday, the leaders of both parties sent an email to all staff inviting us to a moment of silence on the East Capitol steps. As a bell somewhere tolled eleven o’clock, I took my place near the bottom of those steps and looked upward, past the sea of my colleagues toward the great dome. No signs saying Democrat or Republican. Just people, silent, shoulder-to-shoulder, the majority unknown to me and yet all kin.
This, then, is the community of which I am a part; the sacred place we make our home; gathered in honor of our brothers and sisters in Tucson and of the simple, hopeful ideas that their work sustains. Simple ideas: an openness to talk, a willingness to listen, the conversation of free people in a free nation.
Copyright 2011 Lex Paulson
Lex Paulson works as legislative counsel for Congressman Jim Himes.