After all the hype over the release of the third season of “House of Cards,” I finally gave it a whirl. You know, just to see what the fuss was about.
For the record, the show lives up to the hype. It’s that good. Kevin Spacey channels LBJ in a way I’m not sure many other actors can.
But something else I got from the show was a sense of “homecoming,” I guess, in that I recognized so many of the places filmed in the show. Those row houses in Georgetown, the lesser-known parks and greasy spoon cafes, and the Capitol office building cafeterias — all those Washington nooks and crannies that most folks don’t think about because the times they’ve been there were to see Capitol, or take a picture of the White House, or view the exhibits at the Smithsonian. The show includes the out-of-the-way places, and it was fun to pick ’em out.
I know a smattering of such locales because there was a time that I was certain I was going to be having a career there.
Funny how things turn out.
Back in my college days, I was all about finding a way into public service. I studied politics and government, learned about other countries, and dreamed of working for the State Department, or perhaps the CIA. Maybe I’d spend some time on the hill as a legislative researcher, or become a high-powered advocate for a think tank or something.
But my time there, while making quite an impression on me, was limited to a summer as an intern at the Capitol, working for a Minnesota congressman by doing mostly benign administrative tasks. By the time I wrapped up college, I was snapping up the best available job I could find in media, with hopes that maybe one day I’d find my ticket to D.C. by being sent to a Washington Bureau. Or something like that.
Obviously, none of that ever happened. No stint in the diplomatic corps, no long nights at Langley, no big stories as part of the fiercely competitive D.C. press corps. I had to find work in a small Oklahoma community, and I had to do it right away – keeping a roof overhead and food on the table squeezed out far-flung dreams.
So life took me to other places. At first, small towns writing about football games and small-time crimes, then frying bigger fish for bigger outfits.
On my own time, I got to travel some, sometimes abroad. And of course, there was plenty of time hiking and running trails, climbing mountains and driving across the country finding — and making — stories far more dear to my heart than anything I could have done slaving away in the middle of the Capitol Hill boiler room.
I’ve been back to Washington a couple of times since those intern days, and I must say it’s a fantastic city. So much to do and see, and filled with smart, dedicated and talented people. I have incredible memories of that place, but usually they have nothing to do with high-stakes politics or important figures. More often, it’s about meeting who was then my brother Steve’s future wife, playing softball in after-hours beer leagues and getting to know normal people doing normal things in one of the most extraordinary cities on the planet.
There are times when I wonder if I missed out. Had I not been so hard-pressed to find work instead of going to grad school — getting that doctorate, learning a foreign language, or doing whatever else it took to break into one of those sweet federal gigs — could I have somehow cracked that inner circle? Some of my college friends did.
Or what if I’d really put my media career first, gave my ambition a shot of steroids, and really gone for broke on joining the Washington media circus? Could I have done it?
If so, what sort of life would I have?
Here’s what I do know: When you’re working in high-stakes careers, the job comes first. Everything else comes second. Rare is the man or woman who can put their family, health or whatever before their profession in a place like Washington. I’m sure the same could be said in many New York circles, too. Power and riches come with a price, one partially purchased by your undivided attention. Other costs pile up, too.
And I guess you could predict that you might have to sacrifice other things in a “succeed at any cost” or “ends justify the means” sort of way, but I don’t accept that as a given. I know it’s common (or even expected), but I don’t think it’s automatic. Maybe it just seems like it is.
I believe that had things gone according to “plan” I might have had a shot at some or all of those scenarios, but I think I would have lost out in many other ways. How many friends would I have never met, or distant lands would I have never seen? Would I have bothered to ever return to the Rockies, except as a drive-through tourist tethered to a lodge? Would I have ever seen the expansive views from a high summit in the San Juan range if I were chasing political stories all day?
Would I have already died of a heart attack?
Life takes funny turns. I’m sure I never would have been a Francis Underwood-type politician (I hate the nasty side of politics too much), and I barely got out of German with a passing grade, so you can kiss that diplomatic career good-bye. The whole CIA thing was probably a pipe dream, too. Ditto for the Washington press corps.
But I did become a bit of a traveler. I got to see some great places on three continents. I somehow found a way to become a marathoner. I’ve even dabbled in mountaineering, which is every bit as cool as it sounds.
Could I have been all those things and had a big career in Washington? Maybe, but I doubt it. And given the choice, with hindsight as a guide, I wouldn’t choose any different. Quiet solitude on a mountaintop or breezing through the trees on a run just sounds way better than becoming a slave to the grind. When 2016 rolls around, or some new political or international crisis strikes, there is a good chance I could be somewhere much more peaceful and interesting than what my younger self envisioned.
A wise choice or serendipity, I’m not sure. But it certainly is a better fit.