NGA

When typing the words “governors” and “winter meeting” in the last post, I was nearly overcome by a wave of nostalgia and tedium. My first political/government job, you see, was as an intergovernmental relations staffer for the late Georgia governor George Busbee, who was about to assume the chairmanship of the National Governors’ Association just as the Reagan Revolution was breaking out in Washington.

NGA meetings then (and they hadn’t changed much by the time I stopped attending them in the mid-1990s) were rather self-important enclaves where fifty or so pols used to commanding attention back home crowded with their entourages into a small room and listened to a mix of heavy wonkitude from various presenters and engaged in more or less serious efforts to speak as a bipartisan body even as agents of the national parties circulated in the background with the day’s DC talking points.

Thanks to negative publicity over some riotous gatherings back in the 1970s (including a particularly notorious Southern Governors meeting in New Orleans presided over Gov. Edwin Edwards, who was in his fully decadent glory), NGA meetings became and remained quiet and hard-working affairs; the summer annual meetings which are held in various places around the country may feature top-shelf local entertainment performing in fine local tourist destinations, but the excitement is typically tempered by a cash bar and sober early-morning work sessions. And those work sessions were in my experience an odd mix of gubernatorial Show-and-Tell, discussion of reasonably useful recommendations to the federal overseers of intergovernmental grant programs, partisan guerilla warfare (usually cloaked by a level of gubernatorial mutual regard just as elaborate and phony as the U.S. Senate’s), and fine-tuning via processes worthy of the Vatican Curia of NGA’s creaky edifice of Standing Policies.

The highlight of the Winter Meeting is always the interaction with the Leader of the Free World, with one gala social event and one “working meeting” (though Bill Clinton loved to hang out with the govs so much that he was wont to pop in on other occasions). The latter is on tap today, and since it’s very unlikely to produce real news, it will be amusing to see the different optics used to interpret the event by various interested media outlets.

I can’t say I wish I was there, but it does bring back memories: a Revolutionary Communist Party bravo hurling an egg at third-party presidential candidate John Anderson in 1980; tense negotiations over the future of Medicaid with David Stockman in 1981; an insane scramble to come up with “shovel-ready projects” to justify the Clinton administration’s stimulus package in 1993; endless discussions of ultimately futile ways to head off the specter of what was then called “Indian Gaming;” “Governors-only” sessions where the chief executives trashed NGA (and their own) staff; the interstate competition to prepare the most massive briefing books complete with detailed cues on opportunities for The Boss to highlight some gemlike accomplishment; the late 1990s informal smirking competitions regularly put on by George W. Bush, Howard Dean, and George Allen, and on and on.

I wish Godspeed not so much to the Nation’s Governors, but to all those eager young staffers crouching next to their Lord or Lady dispensing advice on a meaningless amendment to a meaningless policy statement, or giving the big sign that it’s time to bring to everyone’s attention the sore plight of wastewater treatment construction projects. This is your day in the artificial sun of a hotel ballroom. Enjoy it, for life is short.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.