I’m standing in a buffet line, staring at the back of Greta Van Susteren’s head. It’s a surprisingly small head, and it looks very much like it did during my days as an intern at CNN’s Washington Bureau.
Back then, a perpetually perplexed-looking Greta and her bevy of assistants would brush past me in the hallway, never acknowledging my existence. Tonight, except for the plastic surgery that’s noticeably softened her frown lines, things are very much the same.
Accordingly, I revert to my 20-year-old self and say nothing. As I wait for her to finish dishing salad onto her plate, I feel like Scrooge receiving a visit from the spirits of my past. I’m at Belmont University’s presidential debate, surrounded by politicians, pundits, and media from around the world, and seeing all of them here together reminds me of why I’ve always hated politics.
A little over a decade ago, I went to Washington expecting to be inspired by the political process, and mentored by some of the biggest names in the news business. As it turned out, the politicians were slick purveyors of speeches, sound bites and lascivious stares at the hopeful young women surrounding them.
The news “mentors” weren’t much better; a number of them, I found, were openly on the hunt for a little intern ‘tail.’ By the time I left, my naiveté had evaporated; I’d simply been one of a herd of college coeds let loose in the city for the summer, skittering about the Capitol like lambs in a den of wolves.
The experience taught me that politics was a dirty game, one that was carefully orchestrated and staged, and one I had no interest in playing. I felt disillusioned by a government that seemed laden with corruption and out of touch with reality.
All these years later, my opinion hasn’t really changed. I’m sure that plenty of men and women go into politics with very good intentions. I can’t see how they could possibly make it all the way to the Capitol without selling out. They wouldn’t survive among the sharks I saw there.
So while I almost always vote, I do so reluctantly, feeling like I’m choosing the lesser of two evils. I watch both Democrats and Republicans on television with a certain amount of disgust, remembering this one’s insistence on all-female interns, and that one’s blonde, tanned, Louis Vuitton-toting daughter telling me over lunch one day that her Congressman dad was “like, the world’s best partier. Seriously, he’s completely wild.”
Generally, my disillusionment is seen as OK, healthy even. But as the presidential election gets closer, it seems like nearly everyone around me has taken sides. They are ardent, they are angry, and they can’t believe I haven’t chosen a captain in what’s turned into a brutal battle for the presidency.
I came to the presidential debate as a member of the media, but in the end I felt more like Dorothy entering Oz, hoping things had changed since I last mingled among the politicos, and that I would magically find the answers I was seeking. Instead, just as I did 13 years ago, I found the Washington Wizards to be flawed and out-of-touch, still hiding behind the imposing gates of Oz.
There is one difference this time around. It’s not my youth that gets the politicians’ attention anymore; it’s my demographic.
I’m a middle class, moderate Mommy in the Middle. I’m not tied down to any one party. I’m concerned about taxes, the economy, the environment, and the rising cost of health care. It becomes abundantly clear as Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama pose and posture on the debate stage that I’m the one that they want. And they’ll say whatever it takes to get me.
In one breath, they both promise to reduce the deficit, cut spending, and fix the economy. In another, they assure me tax relief and health care reform. I don’t understand how they can possibly accomplish reducing the deficit and giving me more of my earnings, but it sure does sound good.
Experience, however, has taught me to be skeptical. Each man accuses the other of being a Washington insider. I have to laugh at that one. They’re both senators. They’re both right.
If I’m the Scrooge in this tale of disenchantment, then clearly the ghost of my future is confronting me on the hundreds of flat screen televisions peppering the debate’s cavernous media center. Trying to decide between the two men feels much like reading a choose-your-own-adventure novel, but with things the way they are, both outcomes seem bleak. Once again, I find myself mulling over which of these candidates is the lesser of two evils.
And I’m still not entirely sure.