Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Choosing a Boss on Capitol Hill

Kate Harris


March 26, 2010

Capitol Hill sits at the epicenter of an aggressive and highly contagious, though relatively contained, disease epidemic know by Washington locals as Potomac Fever. Its onslaught of symptoms are manifest in chronic substitution of acronyms for real words, namedropping, boundless pride, general obnoxiousness, and other power-induced behaviors. In its final stages, Potomac Fever nearly always results in cynicism.

In an epidemiological sense this Beltway-induced fever is allegorical at best, yet it provides a gentle reminder that power, like wealth, will have its way with those who come to it unguarded. For those who seek to guard against it, mentorship is an essential tool for building immunity. More importantly, mentoring nurtures a healthy perspective about politics and the people who practice them.

As I reflect on my own experience working for Senate leadership on Capitol Hill, I see clearly how influential my own mentor was in helping me navigate the inherent tensions of politics faithfully. In my case my mentor was also my boss, whom I identified before I went to work for him. Yet, for anyone seeking a reliable guide amidst the tricky terrain of partisanship, majority votes, coalition-building, closed-door meetings, public positioning and general shenanigans that accompany political involvement, I recommend a few tried and true principles.

First, look for someone who is a practitioner in the public square rather than a critic or commentator. Criticism and analysis certainly have their place in the political process, but like cheap grace there is such a thing as cheap opinions as far as policy-making goes. Look for someone who engages the world as it is, as well as how it ought to be.

Secondly, an essential insight I learned from my own mentor is the conviction that “knowing is doing”. What we know and understand of the world is reflected most clearly in our actions and choices. As such, seek a mentor whose daily life reflects their professed political values. If she fights for the poor on Capitol Hill does she also care for the poor in her own neighborhood? If he advocates for stronger families, does he make it a priority to get home for dinner?

Also, look for someone who reads widely about politics, economics, faith and culture from more than just one viewpoint. A mentor who reads well can help you learn to read well. Reading widely can also be a good sign of a teachable and humble spirit, often indicating a mentor who is willing to be taught even as he teaches others.

Finally, in the same way that my mentor casually advised me to pick a neighbor before picking a house, I have found it immensely helpful, when practicable, to choose a boss before choosing a job. In an article in Comment Magazine on March 30, 2007, Susan Den Herder observed that when students successfully find and keep a mentor it is because, “They noticed someone who embodied the particular worldview they were trying to work out, and who did so in a way that was attractive.” To the extent that your work embodies the worldview you are trying to pursue, having a boss from whom you can gain practical insights about the things you care about is invaluable.

The political system will inevitably disappoint.  The temptations of power will remain tempting. Those who practice politics will persist in being fallen beings as we all are. Searching for those who have encountered these flaws firsthand yet found a way to stay constructively engaged in politics without yielding to cynicism or bitterness is a worthwhile enterprise but it requires intentionality and work to find them. Mentors like these offer more than knowledge, they offer wisdom about how to live well and work well in the midst of messiness and complexity.  They provide a picture of what faithfulness could be.    
—Kate Harris is former staff for the Senate Republican Conference and one of the founders of The Clapham Group and Wedgwood Circle.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”