I’m in “the club,” the approximately 5,000 folks in the “congressional industrial complex” — the members of Congress, journalists, staffers, consultants, lobbyists, pundits and influencers who make a living in the circus of public affairs driven by the happenings of the United States Congress.
We are not coal miners, firefighters or longshoremen. We didn’t sign up for anything close to World’s Most Dangerous Job. Notwithstanding electeds, staffers and nonprofit advocates, we are not public servants. We “fight” on the chamber floor, across conference tables and on TV, but there’s a secret: The club is insular and self-perpetuating, and if you’re willing to play the long game, there’s plenty of room for everyone in the grand white collar carnival. It’s the truism explained in Mark Leibovich’s 2013 book “This Town.” I’m in on the joke. We all are.
Federal policymaking is a plodding marathon. Major shifts happen after philosophy catches hold in a critical mass of the right minds, become sketches of ideas, become the subject of panels and thought pieces and studies, become bills filed, and eventually, after years of tumbling through the D.C. sausage factory, may become law.
The major exception to how we do things in D.C. is when events or circumstances present an existential threat to the club.
When Speaker Tip O’Neill’s beloved Boston Celtics lost Len Bias in 1986, the legislative war on drugs sped into overdrive. When members and staff became priced out of the D.C. health-care exchange, America got crucial fixes to the Affordable Care Act. When our own lives are viscerally touched by policy, as opposed to us being well-meaning but detached theorists who experiment with the flyover state population, we move quickly and definitively.
It is apparent that Saudi Arabia has killed Jamal Khashoggi for being critical of the throne in the ordinary course of his profession. The details of Khashoggi's death are beyond disturbing, the barbarism aggravating an already unspeakable tragedy. Equally as shocking is the reasonable theory that just as he slouched before Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un on the global stage, our president now completes a trifecta of cowering to murderous nondemocracies, his cowardice likely in service of his personal financial ties.
Jamal Khashoggi’s death reverberates so starkly and personally inside the beltway because Khashoggi was a member of our club, a Virginia guy who battled traffic every day to show up to work at 14th and K. He worked at perhaps our club’s most venerable institution, The Washington Post, and found his way to D.C. from a midwestern college. For those of us in public affairs, that’s the path. The Saudi's reportedly tried to lure him back home, hoping he would be tempted by discussions about potentially leading a Saudi think tank — in other words, chasing business — which every member of the club does regularly to maintain our positional niche in the D.C. ecosystem.
It is far past time for the moral world to move away from anything other than absolutely necessary affiliations with Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, again the world cannot look to the American president for leadership. He floated an untruth about “rogue killers” unaffiliated with the crown. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Pence to deliver keynote at fundraising banquet for South Carolina-based pregnancy center Russia suggests military deployments to Cuba, Venezuela an option MORE returned from a trip to Riyadh where he and the king agreed not to discuss “any of the facts,” and confirmed that the crown would investigate, the equivalent of Trump and the Saudis teaming to gaslight the planet with a wink and a dismissive “we’re on it.”
If the moral world rejects years of state-led Saudi human rights violations, the club will lead the change. Corporate policy executives must advise their companies to divest. Journalists, talking heads and media parent companies must not spare harsh words in condemning Saudi Arabia and those who remain in bed with them. Members of Congress must unify to find severe sanctions to enact over the objections of the complicit American president.
It is the right thing to do, and it will be bathed in a narrative of press freedoms and moral triumph. But if a global rejection of Saudi terror happens via comprehensive divestiture, it will ultimately be because Jamal Khashoggi was in the club, and his killing threatens all of us club members’ ability to do what we do.
Fifteen Saudis killing 3,000 Americans didn’t cause us to divest from the evil desert empire. Maybe 15 Saudis killing a member of our club will finally make us act.
There’s nothing like an issue hitting close to home to finally get our attention, even if it means having to overcome the president’s objections based in his personal monetary entanglements. It would be Khashoggi's final gift to the world, and the club will go on, thanks to his unwitting sacrifice.
Don Calloway is CEO of Pine Street Strategies, a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm, and founder of the National Voter Protection Action Fund. Follow him on Twitter @dcstl.