The Workings of Government in Our Own Backyard

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At the House's impeachment inquiry proceeding: Tim Morrison, Ambassador Kurt Volker and Jennifer Williams. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Most political sages will tell you a fact that has become a motto and should hang over the office door of every elected official in the United States.

To wit: “All politics is local.”

If you live in the city and environs of Washington, D.C., you could expand that notion to “All government is local,” since we are the residential witnesses to the daily function of all government in our city, at all levels, in all of its forms.

There is an intensity involved with the presence of so much government. Government in this city is a beating-heart process, from the top of the dome down to the District Council and out to the most far-flung advisory neighborhood commissioner or school board member.

Seen from a far distance, Washington may be to others a swamp, an impenetrable jungle of transactional, departmental doings which keep the country breathing, the queries coming, the necessary forms being filled. Government, unlike politics, seems faceless. Here in Washington, however, you can see government and its political aspects energize, collide and emerge on a daily basis. And they all have faces.

It’s an ongoing process, and we are experiencing one of those times when there’s an exposure of some of the more dramatic and historical workings of the process. This week, we saw the Democrat-led House of Representatives’ impeachment proceeding — an inquiry into President Donald Trump and his interaction with Ukraine — come to a kind of exposed and dramatic if not final climax, with daily testimony from White House officials, State Department participants and various experts. It was topped off if not ended by a gripping day of testimony by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Wednesday, Nov. 20, on Capitol Hill in our own backyard.

That very evening, we could, if we chose to, watch the fifth Democratic presidential debate, leading up to the primary season that begins in Iowa in February. Ten candidates participated in the Washington Post/MSNBC-hosted debate, which had its own moments.

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, the District of Columbia Council presided over the latest, and nearly five-hour-long, meeting on the surging scandal surrounding Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, its longest-serving member, over the results of an ethics investigation into whether or not Evans in his role as a senior Council member took action that benefitted his private consulting firm and its clients.

All three events have already been going on for some time. The impeachment inquiry could have as its most dramatic and historic result the impeachment trial of a sitting president who is already gearing up for a reelection campaign. The debate was yet another emotional attempt at winnowing the field of contenders for the president’s seat. The Council hearing saw a struggle to decide what to do about the apparently unethical conduct of its most senior member, who also faces reelection next year, amid an outcry for his resignation among residents and a possible recall campaign.

These events loom large to us because the proceedings, the dilemmas, the issues and the people involved seem close by, down the street, up the hill a piece. We know the combatants, we know the presidential wannabes for the same reasons. And we certainly know the actors in the Evans controversy.

These events appear to be happening simultaneously, so that it’s impossible the avoid the human beings connected to these events. It’s the shock of recognition, the humanity on display, in one way or another, that lingers in the aftermath — except of course that there is no aftermath, that the impeachment train will continue to roll, the campaigns will go on and the Evans scandal will proceed toward a climax or resolution.

The impeachment inquiry hearing centered on whether or not the president sought a quid pro quo with the newly elected president of the Ukraine in a (“beautiful and perfect”) telephone call in which he asked for “a favor,” allegedly an investigation that included Joe Biden and his son and their activities in Ukraine.

That’s the essence of the hearing: Did and could an American president ask or pressure  a foreign head of state to investigate the political rivals of that president.

The answer remains a matter of whether it’s important or not. But the hearing did something different so far — it exposed the humanity of the human beings involved, not just the posturing of the politicians in both parties. The main witnesses were a former ambassador to Ukraine who was dismissed from her post and testified of the tactics used against her, a Ukraine expert and U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who showed up in full uniform and dressed down questioner Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) to call him by his rank, not Mr.

These two, and the almost full day questioning of a sometimes jovial, sometimes irritated, sometimes funny, even carefree Sondland, humanized the hearings for many viewers, took them out of the realm of politics even and more into theater. Sondland was most effective when he claimed that, not just the president, but everyone connected with the Ukraine discussions knew there was a holdup of military aid, knew there was talk of a favor and so on. “They were all in the loop,” he said, a phrase that made the big headlines the next day, along with: “Diplomat acknowledges quid pro quo.”

Later, after all that, the Democrats took the stage in Atlanta: four women, six men, facing a panel of four female interrogators.

What always amazes about a Democratic primary is the fluidity on the stage, the open-endedness to the future. At a debate, the Democratic candidates always seem more diverse, more human, like the future of this country. This does not necessarily carry over to the hearings, where neither the Democrats nor the Republicans seem to be able to rise above their partisan swill. It took government, military and foreign policy experts and professionals like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to provide the dignity that the proceedings often lacked.

The Evans hearing is not the end of the Evans story. There are further storms ahead for the Council member, including a possible recall election, and numerous folks are running against him. The ending is by no means in sight, but it is, to many a recognizable story. We know Evans, we know the Council members, we recognize the names, and the urgent dilemma.

In the end, in this as the rest, all government is politics, and all politics is local in the city on the hill.

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