State Department
The State Department's headquarters in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Credit: Loren/Wikimedia Commons

Here’s how things look from inside the State Department:

“This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after World War II, when you realize, no, the sun actually does set on your empire,” said the mid-level officer. “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”

Do you want another perspective?

“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”

Those quotes come from an excellent piece Julia Ioffe just had published at The Atlantic.

You can probably detect a wee bit of a morale problem developing in Foggy Bottom. Ioffe does a nice job of documenting the atrocities, and you’ve probably caught wind of some of the major issues, like the lack of any Deputy or Assistant Secretary of State. It appears that things are considerably worse than most people realize, however. The place is half-empty, people are coming in late and leaving early because they have no work to do. There’s no guidance on anything. They haven’t held a daily press briefing since the inauguration. The Secretary, Rex Tillerson, is isolated and tightly controlled.

The space on Mahogany Row, the line of wood-paneled offices including that of the secretary of state, is now a mysterious construction zone behind blue tarp…

…Tillerson’s chief of staff is not his own, but is, according to the Washington Post, a Trump transition alum named Margaret Peterlin. “Tillerson is surrounded by a bunch of rather mysterious Trumpistas,” said the senior State official who recently left. “How the hell is he supposed to do his job when even his right hand is not his own person?” One State Department employee told me that Peterlin has instructed staff that all communications with Tillerson have to go through her, and even scolded someone for answering a question Tillerson asked directly, in a meeting.

This all calls to my mind what Hunter S. Thompson said in the fall of 1972 when he realize that George McGovern wasn’t just going to lose to Nixon, but be utterly destroyed by him:

“America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

Set against that somewhat unfair characterization of our great nation has always been another impulse. The State Department, at its best, is where our better angels reside. It’s where people not only believe in human rights and diplomacy and leading by a positive example, but where idealistic and morally principled people work long hours every day in the furtherance of those goals.

And if those people are interpreting current events as America being over, that really means that our better angels are being destroyed. If going to work at the State Department feels like painting the toe nails on your terminally ill mother, who am I to argue?

These people want to fight for an America that is more virtuous, and the simple fact that they do this work makes our country more virtuous. Now they say their work is a pointless act of love for an incurably ill nation.

What answer do we have for that?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at