The Contact Sports

It's easy to stand back and see how well the men and women of Washington know each other. There are unwritten rules — unwritten, that is, until now.

First introduction is easy. You shake. If you're really adventurous, you can grasp the other's hand with both of yours.

At the second encounter, how about a hug? A restrained one. You barely touch and the woman gives the man's back two light taps. It is accompanied by the air kiss.

Social meeting No. 3 is time for the honest-to-God real hug, along with the cheek peck.

From then on it's up to you. Those who genuinely like each other will sometimes even lightly kiss on the lips. They're consenting adults, after all.

Beyond that? As the Human Resources director would say, you don't want to go there.

And if Harry Truman was right about friends and dogs, you could have an entire discussion about licking. But I definitely don't want to go there.

This is all very important to know if you're one of the few outsiders Barack Obama is bringing into his government. For the most part, though, he's staying close to home, home being Washington.

He's stocking up on the same people who participated in the culture he says he's going to shake up.

That's what we call reality. If you genuinely want "Change you can believe in,” you need people who know how this apparatus works.

The creative outsider will get rolled if he or she can't benefit from those who know how this apparatus works — or why it doesn't.

The way it's working now is that anyone who has ever shaken hands or even been in the same room with a new Obama powerful is calling him "dear friend,” job searching or social climbing. The incoming is suddenly a best buddy. The outgoing is "What's-His-Name.” That is the D.C. Law of Gravity.

The losers can take heart, though, because they're really winners. The smart ones will either hook up with or even start their own special interest group, whose sole purpose is to raise the alarm about anything Obama.

Another immutable law of nature inside the Beltway is that you raise lots more money being against something than for it. The resourceful Republican should be able to exploit countless right-wing fears and anger.

What's really fun is that the most strident in both wings go to the same parties, live in the same neighborhoods, send their kids to the same private schools. So it's not easy, as we watch them all go through the huggy-kissy ritual, to discern who is on what side. Unless you look very closely and notice after the embrace that one or both have knives sticking out the back.

Still, it is true: Civility is a good thing. Even when it's bogus. I agree with another writer who once said that even insincere flattery is flattering because someone is being told he is worth insincerely flattering.

It's time to take all that social energy and channel it toward the huge economic national security and ethical changes we will need to address if we have any chance of turning things around. Even with the dire circumstances facing this country, the possibility of that happening is anything but — how shall I say it? — "a slam-dunk.” What is certain is that if the operators don't change the way they operate, we will finally learn we're all in this together after it's too late to turn things around.


Visit Mr. Franken's website at www.bobfranken.tv.