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Washington Week - "Why Washington Matters" by Gwen Ifill

My mother used to hold fresh-cut oranges under my nose to disguise the odor and taste of the castor oil she was spooning into my mouth. It didn’t work, but it was her way of attempting to disguise unpleasant truths. In a way, it’s not so different than what I had to do when I first took over as moderator for “Washington Week.”

When those of us who live in Washington leave the city, we find ourselves on the defensive. How do we explain the ways of Washington? How do we make people who hate politicians listen to us talk about politics? If you want to get a reliable laugh, it is best to begin by saying, “I’m from Washington, and I’m here to help you.” It’s almost embarrassing to see how easily that comment can bring out the cynics in the crowd. But September 11 has changed the way many Americans view government. More to the point, it has changed the way many of us think about democracy and freedom.

This is not a small thing. For way too long, many Americans took what happens in the nation’s capital for granted. It simply never occurred to many of us that the business of governing had anything to do with the patriotic songs we sang on the Fourth of July. For many Americans, what happens in Washington simply was not relevant.

It seemed this way for a number of reasons. The news media has not done a particularly good job of telling Washington stories in a way that relates to people who worry about punching clocks and making the rounds at carpool. We can easily become preoccupied with the insider story that has more to do with what politicians say to one another than with what they should be saying to the constituents they represent.

Another reason Washington has seemed to fade in relevance is that politics became a dirty word —defined as much by fundraising and horse-trading as by fair representation. So Washington had become a tough sell. Then, on September 11, we suddenly remembered the virtues of centralized government.

Everyone wanted to know where the president was and where he was headed next. We all wracked our brains for what we knew about succession. (Was it the secretary of state or the speaker of the House who was third in line?) We wanted to know if all those alphabet agencies in Washington — the FAA, FEMA, DOT, FBI and CIA — were doing their jobs. Where were the planes? Where were the rescuers? Where was the airport security? Who was searching for the perpetrators?

After years of government-bashing, the virtues of the federal government suddenly became clear.

So I no longer have to explain to people why Washington matters. We all get it.

What everybody seems to want now is reassurance that Washington gets it, too. Most people I meet around the country do not keep track of public opinion polls or the internal political wars that consume politicians and political reporters. But they do want to know someone is paying attention to what they think. Most folks I talk to do not want strained federal coffers to become a bottomless pit of aid to
foreign governments and disaster victims and warriors who do not want peace. But they do want the United States to play a judicious role in straightening out the tangled web of international conflict.

Washington matters immensely. Certainly the war on terrorism has made decisions in the capital resonate with all Americans. But this relevance goes beyond war. When you go to your doctor and are shocked by the charges, the debate on health care reform matters. When you look at your paycheck and feel that not enough of it is ending up in your bank account, tax cut debates matter.

It is natural to dismiss events in Washington as “just politics.” Well, everything is politics — big issues, small issues, at home and in the workplace. But politics in Washington is often policy, and these policies have a profound impact around the kitchen table.

Part of the problem is our own. Journalists trumpet the frailties of politicians, leading citizens to feel that all have feet of clay. When I tell people I like politicians, they are surprised. But in all my years of covering Washington, the vast majority of politicians I’ve met have been honorable people who are committed to public service.

The distinction is this. I call it the “when chickens fly” theory of journalism. If a chicken walks or hops across the road, that is to be expected. But if that chicken suddenly flaps its wings and becomes airborne, well that’s NEWS. We cover the unusual, the unexpected and betrayals of trust. Reading all that or watching it on television can make you cynical if you let it. What we try to do on “Washington Week” is to put these events in context — explain why they happen.

What happens in Congress or at the White House or at any of the federal agencies charts the course of the country and, in many respects, the world. Assisted by the country’s best reporters  those who actually cover the news  “Washington Week” will continue to have a Friday night conversation that is engaging and illuminating. Washington does matter and our purpose is to look at it from all angles and share this insight with you. The thoughtful and discerning comments we get from our many loyal viewers tell us we’re on the right track.

See you Friday.

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