In 1962 Coates Redmon was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and not a bit happy about it. Her husband Hayes was teaching Russian history at the Air Force Academy, which was a good step in his career; but she hated the military in general and the Academy particularly. There were many other things she would rather have been doing, but one that especially caught her eye was the Peace Corps, which had been set up the year before. “That was the greatest thing I ever heard of,” she says now. “I wanted to come and be a part of it. But I thought, that’s impossible, and I forgot about it.”

One day, by chance, her husband happened to be given the assignment of showing a visiting colonel from the Pentagon around the Academy. Hayes Redmon so impressed the colonel that he was invited, on the spot, to come back to Washington and join his staff. Hayes called his wife right away and asked her if she’d like to move there. “I’m packing,” Coates Redmon said.

They arrived in the fall of ’62, not knowing a soul. One day in the first month they were in Washington the Redmons went to Hechinger’s, an upper-middle-class lumberyard, to buy some planks for a bookcase. It was one of those moments in life of unexpected opportunity. Across the store Coates happened to see Dick Nelson, a young man who had been editor of the Princeton humor magazine, the Tiger. She had met him years earlier, in New York, when they had collaborated on a couple of projects while she was working at Glamour magazine.

Nelson and the Redmons got to talking. He said he was now working at the Peace Corps as assistant to Bill Moyers, the already celebratedly bright and charming protege of Lyndon Johnson’s who was then the Peace Corps’ deputy director. Coates’ heart leapt when she heard Peace Corps. “Oh,” she said, “you’re working for the wonder boy of Washington. Is he really that great?”

Nelson said yes, Moyers was that great, and that in fact Moyers and his wife were giving him a going-away party because he had been inducted and why didn’t the Redmons come. They went—the next week, to a small dinner at the Moyers’, where Coates emphatically let it be known that she was interested in working at the Peace Corps.

The Redmons couldn’t have known it then, but bumping into Dick Nelson that day at Hechinger’s would change both their lives. It was the watershed after which everything began to flow in a different direction. They had become Washington survivors.

The Crest of the Wave

Washington is a city to which many people come and few people leave. They come because of a specific job; because they want an outlet for their idealism; because they are interested in being involved in government and politics; because Washington offers more opportunity for quick advancement than do most American cities; and because they want to be at the center of things, to ride the crest of the wave. Usually it’s some sort of break that brings them here—a chance meeting, a good score on the civil service test, a successful political campaign, friends, family, money.

Most people who live in Washington don’t want to leave. It’s a pleasant, pretty city, and after a few years their friends are here, their children firmly ensconced in school, their houses half paid for. Even those who don’t mind leaving the city itself are loath to leave Washington in the figurative sense—that is, the world of public affairs, be it here or at the Council on Foreign Relations or the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy or the RAND Corporation or The Atlantic Monthly. And indeed, although jobs end, elections are lost, and agency budgets are sometimes cut, almost nobody ever has to leave Washington and go back home. Of the few who do go back, a high proportion are doing so only to “build a base” that will enable them to win a seat in the House or Senate and return to Washington in a more exalted position than they occupied formerly.

The reason why nobody has to leave is that almost everybody soon learns how to survive in the complex and perilous world of Washington. It’s done by making contacts, by building a reputation, by establishing a network in which the unstated ethic is one of mutual protection. In other words, you turn your own part of Washington into a small town, with all the stability and resistance to change and to outsiders that that implies. Survival networks, of course, exist everywhere, and everywhere they help shape the communities they’re in. But in Washington, besides all that, they also are an important factor in the governing of the nation.

Civil servants have tenure and survival is easiest for them, but still they have budget cuts to fear, so the high-ranking among them make sure to provide the President with programs and congressmen with constituent services. Those elected officials are grateful for that, because it helps them survive at election time; and they in turn help the bureaucrats and private lobbyists survive by listening to their entreaties. Even if the elected don’t survive at the polls, of course, they can and almost always do stay in Washington, usually as lobbyists—in fact, it’s partly by building up a survival network among both fellow elected officials and lobbyists that they can assure their futures in Washington.

Most adept of all at the art of survival are the political appointees at the top of government. These are people who build careers out of switching jobs every two or three years, and who in that fluid and uncertain situation have found a way to get de facto tenure. They have done so by building strong networks among the elected officials, the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, the co-workers, and the various constituent groups with which they deal in the course of their jobs. These networks will be the most important element in all the future jobs they get. An assistant secretary in the education branch of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, for instance, might go from there to a higher post in the department; to an education-policy job in the White House; to a partnership in a law firm; to the head of a foundation having to do with education; to the head of a university; or to a high position at an interest group like the American Council on Education. Since the average tenure of assistant secretaries is now less than two years, it’s not too much to say that a prudent one must go about building all these bridges almost from the moment he takes office.

The result is that although Washington is supposed to be a city where power is carefully balanced between groups with contradictory interests, in fact it’s a place with a strong sense of shared enterprise, a place where every person you deal with is someone who is either helping you survive now or might conceivably Later on. The most remarked-upon case in point is the reporter who accords his sources kid-glove treatment so that they will remain his sources. If they stopped talking to him, he’d be out of a job. What isn’t so well known is that that ethic exists for politicians and bureaucrats and political appointees too. Thus when Rep. John Anderson, the prominent liberal Republican from Illinois, faced a tough primary campaign this year, Rep. Jack Kemp, the prominent conservative Republican from New York, went out to campaign for him—their survival bond was far stronger than their ideological differences. Thus White House staff members, GS-16s, and corporate lobbyists alike are reluctant to do anything that will mark them as apart from the shared enterprise, because that might mean their non-survival.

Of course, along with the survival instinct comes a genuine empathy with other people in Washington that reinforces the bonds and makes severe criticism a rarity. The same deep understanding that makes it hard for you to believe that your cousin who’s a lush should be fired also makes it hard for you to condemn your friend Henry Kissinger with the vociferousness he deserves. The atmosphere, at any rate, is one that has made some badly needed qualities—strong dissent, for instance, or ideological passion—largely absent from federal policy.

Certain Requirements

Through the Moyers connection, Coates Redmon got her first Washington job, in the special projects division of the Peace Corps. In a first job in Washington, there are certain requirements for survival that don’t exist later on. You have to prove your ability to do valuable work, and you have to establish the network of contacts that will see you through the coming years. In an outfit like the Peace Corps most people had come in through some personal contact and were thus trained to be on the lookout for more; and the group was made up of hard-working, like-minded people who didn’t need any prodding to form close friendships. For Coates, finding some real work to do—making herself indispensable—was harder. She eventually wangled the assignment of helping write the Peace Corps’ annual report to Congress, a task that had fallen to her division because nobody else wanted to do it. Writing the annual report was the main skill by which she was to survive in the Peace Corps.

Coates was flying back from a recruiting trip to Pittsburgh when President Kennedy was shot. At the Peace Corps, especially, the sorrow was great. The organization had lost its founder and patron, and as a result it also lost its brightest star. Moyers left right away to become Johnson’s right-hand man in the White House—and brought with him as his top assistant, to everyone’s surprise, Hayes Redmon from the Pentagon rather than anyone from the Peace Corps. So besides having a needed skill, Coates now had White House protection too. In 1965, when Shriver left the Peace Corps, his successor, Jack Vaughn, told her to keep on doing what she had done all along, writing the annual report. And Vaughn did her a favor by putting over her a new boss named Bob Hatch, who would later become a key figure in her survival network.

When Moyers left the White House in 1967 Hayes Redmon could hardly stay on, so the Redmons soon moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Hayes took a job as assistant to Edwin Land at Polaroid. One day in Cambridge, Coates got a call from Adam Yarmolinsky—former whiz kid at the Pentagon, close friend of Hayes and fellow member of a network of secret doves high in the government, and then a professor at Harvard Law School. Yarmolinsky was running the fellowship program at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard, and he asked Coates to come and help him part-time. On the one hand it was a lowly job, handling the paperwork and the details for the too-busy Yarmolinsky, but on the other it really required someone who had what was by now one of Coates’ special skills: knowledge of Washington.

People in the world of public affairs would apply for the fellowships, and Coates would know how to find out how good, how promising, each applicant really was. She would call other members of her network—people like Joe Califano in the White House or Bob Wood at HUD. These people were helping Coates do her job, and she was giving them a chance to do a favor for some of their bright young acquaintances. It worked very well, and Coates stayed for a year and a half, until mid-1969, when she left to have a baby.

Suddenly Very Serious

Three years later, the process of survival, which until then had been pleasantly haphazard for Coates, became suddenly very serious. Hayes Redmon had a severe heart attack in 1972 and died shortly thereafter, leaving Coates with two kids to feed and very little money. She had to find a way to live right away.

Among many other tries, she asked Professor Richard Neustadt, part of her new network at the Kennedy Institute, to get her an appointment with someone at the Ford Foundation. Neustadt obliged, but at Ford they told her that because the recession was just starting and because there were a lot of applicants, her chances were slim. By the way, the man interviewing her said, I see by your resume that you were in the Peace Corps. Do you know Bob Hatch?

Sure, said Coates, I used to work for him. Where is he? He was at the Children’s Television Workshop. She went right downstairs to a phone booth and called Hatch, and he said to come on over.

Hatch said the workshop was starting a new series on health and sent Coates to see its director, Bill Kobin. Kobin was looking over her resume and said, oh, I see you have Bill Moyers down here as a reference—I used to be his producer. Coates was hired, saved by the Peace Corps network.

The job was stimulating but Coates’ heart was in Washington. Through the Peace Corps network she got a job with Senator Charles Percy, and some months after that ended she got a call from Bob Hatch in New York. There was a new project starting up at public TV, he said, sort of a quiz show for eggheads, and they needed somebody with Coates’ special skill, someone who really knew Washington and could line up the right guests. She went to work there in September 1976—again, courtesy of the network.

Just About Everybody

That time, the late summer and early fall of 1976, was important for just about everybody playing the Washington survival game. When the Democrats left power in 1968, practically all of them survived. If you were, like Coates, a woman, widowed, from the middle levels of government, you got by okay. Few people got by worse and a lot got by better. By 1976 nobody Coates knew from the Peace Corps was away from the world of Washington, and some of them had been saved and eased into comfortable niches by their friends despite severe problems, alcoholism or utter incompetence in a job. Having proved themselves and established their network 15 years before, the Peace Corps people no longer had to perform to survive. It helped, but it wasn’t necessary.

Some of the Peace Corps people had managed to stay on in government under the Republicans. Some had college presidencies. Some ran foundations. Some had ambassadorships. They were in business (but liberal business), labor unions, Capitol Hill offices, journalism—but all were still around and had survived on the strength of who they knew and what they knew.

Just about everybody had a network, often several. There are, for instance, networks built around almost every senator’s office in Washington and around every major law school. There are networks of the proteges of powerful people, like the network of Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, or of Chester Bowles, the former undersecretary of State, or of Robert Strauss, President Carter’s special trade representative. There are cause networks made up of people who came to Washington to work for a cause and stayed on after the cause ended—like the network of Bobby Kennedy’s Get-Hoffa Squad or Arnold Miller’s Miners for Democracy. Network members stay in touch with one another. They help each other out in times of no jobs. A victory for one is a victory for all—one member’s success puts him in a position to help the others more.

There are people who manage to survive forever in the appointive ranks of government, like Frank Carlucci (director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, undersecretary of HEW, and ambassador to Portugal under Nixon; deputy director of the CIA under Carter), but they are relatively rare. Some of those who haven’t been able to work out the next job yet when they leave government are given the opportunity to spend a year decompressing and thinking and looking around on a fellowship. Coates gave out some of these at the Kennedy Institute; Robert O. Anderson, the ARCO tycoon, dispenses others at his Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, where distinguished men with titles like Director of Humanism and the Commonweal talk and write about such themes as From Independence to Interdependence. McGeorge Bundy at the Ford Foundation gave special one-year grants to some of Bobby Kennedy’s closest staff after he was assassinated, people like Peter Edelman and Adam Walinsky, and a year later, to balance the ticket, Johnson aides like Califano and Walt Rostow got them too. These thinking fellowships are known collectively as The Leisure of the Theory Class.

But for the most part, survivors who leave government go into The Business—the access business, where you make a living by marketing your knowledge of the people and the processes of the federal government. The Business is sprawling. It includes the economist at the Brookings Institution who understands federal budgeting, the tax lawyer who knows who to see at the IRS about an exemption, the PR man who knows every reporter in town, the university president who knows how to shake grant money loose from HEW, and (its most familiar practitioner) the lobbyist who can call his old friend the assistant secretary and ask a favor. The smartest lobbyists know assistant secretaries and congressmen want to stay in Washington, and they imply as much as possible that they can be of help in the quest—which in turn helps them survive by getting access.

The Business is an easy way to survive because there’s a lot of demand for it. How Washington really works is still largely a mystery to the rest of America—and an important one, since Washington affects the lives of most people and institutions. People who have been in the federal government can sell this knowledge to the rest of the country.

But The Business, because it is at one remove from the crest of the wave, is only second best to being in government. While just about everybody survives, very few are able to survive well enough to get back in in a good spot. As you get older the jobs you’d take dwindle, and it becomes harder to muster the time and energy to work in campaigns, which is the surest route to jobs in the government. The people who are still in their 20s and early 30s—the ones who can take time off for campaign work—are the ones who get most of the good jobs. Still, in a year like 1976, when it becomes clear the Democrats are returning to power, the thoughts of just about everybody, young and old, turned to the election. People in Congress had to run; bureaucrats had to worry about what a new President would try to do to them; people in Coates’ generation thought about getting back in; and people a generation younger thought about getting in for the first time.

Drop Everything

Coates was happily at work on the TV show one day in November 1976 when she got a call from Mitzi Wertheim, yet another network member from the Peace Corps. Wertheim was in charge of the “foreign affairs cluster” in the Carter transition office. She asked Coates if she could drop everything and come over and work for two days, helping compile files on candidates for high appointive office. Coates would be perfect because she was a proven writer and she knew Washington. She said sure, she’d do it, and ended up staying for five weeks. During that time she was able to repay in a small way some of the people who had helped her survive by working up job files on them; she did this for people like Moyers and Shriver.

In that atmosphere of resumes you throw your own into the pile, which Coates did. Meanwhile another member of the network, Mary Hoyt, who had shared an office with Coates at the Peace Corps, had run a PR business with some Peace Corps alumni, and had developed the sui generis talent of handling PR for the wives of important politicians, had surfaced as Rosalynn Carter’s press secretary. One day Hoyt said to Coates, “Give me your resume and give it to me fast,” and shortly thereafter she called back and offered Coates a job in the White House as “East Wing Writer.” Almost all of the rest of the old Peace Corps crowd made some play for a job that never quite panned out. Most of them had shied away from Jimmy Carter for too long, had wanted jobs slightly out of their reach, and hadn’t had the freedom to drop everything and join the campaign or the transition as Coates had.

At the same time, there was intense job-hunting activity on many other levels. One of the most intense was that of the bright young lawyers and Capitol Hill staff members and political academics, people in their late 20s and early 30s, full of energy and ambition, most wanting to be involved in formulating domestic policy. Few of these people went to work for the Carter primary campaign, but a group of them hopped aboard after it became clear Carter would be the Democratic nominee and spent the summer and fall working on issues in Atlanta.

After Carter was elected there was a second wave of domestic-policy hiring, and that wave included Joseph Onek. At 34, Onek had already survived in Washington for some years, having initially broken in through outstanding academic performance. Onek is from the Forest Hills section of Queens (no network potential there). He went from there to Harvard (that’s one network), from there to England for two years on a Marshall scholarship (another network), and then to Yale Law School (yet another). There he did very well—well enough to become one of the top editors of the law review, which in turn was enough of a credential to get him a clerkship with Judge David Bazelon of the District of Columbia Circuit Court and then one with Justice William Brennan of the Supreme Court. It was these clerkships that brought Onek to Washington, and he didn’t intend at the time to stay longer than the two years they would keep him here.

When the second clerkship ended Onek went to work for Senator Edward Kennedy’s Administrative Practices Subcommittee (working for Kennedy is one of the best survival jobs on Capitol Hill; others are working for Senator Henry Jackson and, when he was still there, Senator Walter Mondale). Onek took the place of a Yale classmate who was going to clerk on the Supreme Court; and the subcommittee’s chief counsel, Jim Flug, was a member of two of Onek’s networks—they had gone to Harvard together and had both been clerks for Bazelon. Meanwhile another friend from Harvard, who had also gone to Yale Law School and clerked on the D.C. Circuit, Charles Halpern, had founded the Center for Law and Social Policy, a public interest law firm respectable enough to be funded by the Ford Foundation. Onek went there from Kennedy’s subcommittee, and by 1976, five years later, he was running the firm.

Onek had stayed pretty clear of the campaign, but the network nonetheless reached out for him. Ten days before the election he got a call from Harrison Wellford, a former aide to Ralph Nader (whose former aides now comprise one of the most successful networks in government). Onek and Wellford had been Marshall scholars together and had had some contact through the Nader organization, so they were fellow network members. Wellford asked Onek if he would take some time off and work in the transition on health issues—a field Onek had practiced in and taught a course in at Maryland Law School, where the dean was a friend from Yale. Onek said sure he would.

During the transition Onek worked partly with Stu Eizenstat and partly with Joe Califano, just appointed secretary of HEW. Onek knew Califano in a variety of ways. Califano had been a staunch friend of the Center for Law and Social Policy. When the Ford Foundation would become itchy about its funding of the Center, Califano would sometimes step in and call Mac Bundy at the foundation (who, remember, had given Califano a fellowship after working in the White House with him) and save the day. They were on opposite sides of an issue sometimes and on the same side sometimes.

Better Than Anyone

By this time it was clear who of the Kennedy-Johnson-era people was going to survive really well and who wasn’t, and Califano had to be accorded the honor of having survived better than anyone in Washington. His career was a thing of beauty. In his early thirties he had held the best domestic policy job in the Johnson Administration, at the President’s right hand. After that he went into The Business, but somehow he managed both to make more money at it than anyone else and to keep his public-affairs image impeccable. He had written two books, one on World Youth and the other on The Presidency. He had had some key prestige clients, such as The Washington Post, Daniel Schorr, and the Democratic National Committee. In his law firm he had surrounded himself with the brightest young legal talent in the country. He had managed the transition from staff-level government job to Cabinet-level government job beautifully, and here he was again in the best domestic-affairs job in the administration.

The competition for best survivor, junior division, was harder to judge, but certainly a leading candidate for the honor was Ben Heineman Jr., Califano’s young executive assistant. Son of a Chicago tycoon, a man who could be doing any one of a hundred important things right now, Heineman had been a Rhodes Scholar, gone to Yale Law School, and eventually had come to be Califano’s closest aide. He had also worked with Onek at the Center for Law and Social Policy, which had become quite a network of its own, sending half a dozen others into high government jobs in the Carter Administration. For his part, Onek decided after the transition to stay with the Eizenstat operation and moved on to the White House staff as an associate director of the dometic policy staff for health issues.

Onek and the other associate directors—bright, ambitious people in their early to mid-30s—are just where they want to be right now, right at the center of things, their lives for the most part unbroken strings of successes to date. But already that is beginning to change. Options are starting to close down. The time is coming, a year and a half into their new jobs, to start thinking about what comes next—about how to survive. Part of it is the natural desire (in Washington) to become restless after a couple of years. Part is that working for Jimmy Carter is fast losing its luster. Part is that the associate directors are approaching that key age where you ought really to shift from a staff job to a line job, like an assistant secretaryship. So they’re at the place where surviving and governing are intertwined.

In that place, there are some networks where everyone is simon-pure and thinks only about doing the job at hand, never about what will come next. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some where every move is designed to improve later prospects in The Business. Just as back home some insurance agents join charity boards just to sell the other members policies, in Washington there are people who work in campaigns and take pro bono cases solely to make contacts, and who while in public office make sure to touch base with as many people as they can both in and out of government. “When LBJ said he wasn’t going to run again,” says one of his aides now, I made damn sure to call all those agencies and departments. I tried to find out who those guys were and what they did. I wanted ’em to remember my name when I called ’em and it wasn’t from the White House.”

For the most part people in government fall into some middle ground, their survival process and their networks not explicitly corrupting (the way being in Bobby Baker’s survival network would be), but always in mind. Most people in Washington know they will live on on the strengths of their contacts and their reputation, so as they go about their jobs they naturally build up their strengths in those two areas. As a result they’re one degree blander, one degree more technocratic, than they might otherwise be—and so, therefore, is the federal government.

`Who Do You Answer?’

Anybody with an important job in government deals constantly with two facts of life: that more people want to make contact with him than he has time for, and that he has a built-in constituency of interest groups that he must deal with. “I never understood the access issue before,” says Onek, “but I began to notice it in the transition. On a busy day, which isn’t every day, on those days, you see what it’s like. I come back to my office and there are 20 phone messages on my desk and I don’t have time to return them all. Who do you answer? Your friends. People who are well-known. People you have a professional relationship with. Staffers on the Hill. That experience has given me a sense of how Washington works.”

Why grant access? That gets back to survival. In the simplest formulation, you might give access to those who can help you survive in the future. But Onek is certainly not going to leave his job to work for the American Medical Association, so it’s subtler than that. First of all, you’ll stay in touch with your community—the cluster of groups that have to do with your job, not only the businesses but the foundations and the trade press and the think tanks. Second, and more broadly, there’s that pan-Washington sense of shared enterprise. When Clark Clifford calls the White House you’ll probably call back, not because you want to work for his law firm but because he’s just a long-standing part of Washington, somebody you’d like to know. Not many people of integrity will make a decision based solely on the expectation of a future favor. But just about everybody tries, in a general way, to be nice, because of a vague sense that anybody might, in the fluid world of Washington, be a good person to have a friendly relationship with.

Reputation is even more subtly managed than contacts, and probably even more important to the way government works. One White House aide, not Onek, asked how you build a reputation that will insure your survival, started to list adjectives. You want to be reasonable, he said. Cool. Cogent. Toughminded. Responsible. Pragmatic. Visible within government, though invisible in the press. Expert. Tolerant. You have to be able to size up complicated situations, to understand the forces coursing through Washington and make them work for you. The ability to compromise. The ability to move events.

What kind of reputation won’t help you survive? You can’t be a blatant self-aggrandizer. It’s bad to be disloyal, the kind of person who testifies against the administation. People remember that kind of thing. It’s bad to be partisan. Emotional. Uncontrolled. Irresponsible.

That last is really the key word, and those who don’t survive well are usually those who have committed the sin of irresponsibility. Daniel Ellsberg, for instance, behaved very irresponsibly in the late 60s and early 70s, while Cyrus Vance was responsible, not popping off, working through channels. Look where each is now. Rep. Ken Hechler of West Virginia, who left his seat in 1976 to run unsuccessfully for governor, was one of the first politicians to stand up on the mine safety issue, but on the other hand he’s flamboyant and a little strange. So when he recently tried (unsuccessfully) to win his old seat back, all Washington backed the incumbent, a responsible young man named Nick Joe Rahall.

“There’s a sense,” says one person high up in the government, “that the people and issues you deal with are all part of a world that you want to remain a part of.” Everybody in Washington knows what it takes to stay in that world, and just about everybody plays by the rules.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.