Tuesday, November 12, 2013
This Blog Post Will Self-Destruct
You've probably heard me tell it. The story goes like this. When I was in college I wanted to be a spy. I applied to what the CIA calls its "Professional Trainee Program" (since you can't be an Operations Officer until you're 25) and got to the point where I was invited to go down to Virginia for my psych evaluation. Realizing that the next step was my security clearance and that that could take 6-9 months, I started looking for another job after graduation.
After combing the Tufts Alumni Network for jobs that sounded interesting, I came across a listing for Jordan Karp, Campaign Manager. I emailed him (along with several other less exciting candidates) asking for an informational interview. What I received in return was a 4 paragraph long email detailing the good, the bad and the ugly of working on Democratic campaigns. "You'll work 14 hours days but your coworkers will be your best friends. You'll eat sleep and breathe your job, but you will also wear pajamas to work and drink vodka in the office. You'll get screamed at by strangers, but you'll wake up every day knowing that what you do makes a difference. It will be the hardest most rewarding thing you ever do." I'm paraphrasing, but I wish I had saved that email because it changed my life. Shortly after that exchange I took a job as a Field Organizer with the 2006 Minnesota Democratic Coordinated Campaign, fell in love with it, withdrew my application to the CIA and never looked back.
It's hard to imagine myself as a member of the Clandestine Services now, since my life is so thoroughly steeped in campaigns, but for a year in my early 20's I pursued my application to the CIA with the single-minded devotion I now reserve for GOTV recruitment and Arrested Development trivia. However, a recent Salon.com article, my birthday and my current job search have me doing some reflecting. No doubt my life would have been very different without that email, no matter where I wound up. Here are five ways that working on a campaign is like being a spy:
1) It's About Relationship Building. What we would think of as "spies" don't do a whole lot of spying. Most of what they do is recruit and collect information from key foreign nationals by persuading them that helping the US government would be in their favor. The job requires the ability to build trust, the insight to find out what motivates different people and in addition to staunch loyalty to the cause, a devotion and fiercely protective attitude toward those you recruit since they are likely putting themselves in harm's way to help you. Sound similar to anything you know? In fact "spies" are called Operations Officers or sometimes even, you guessed it, "Field Operatives."
2) People Have Strong, Ill-Informed Opinions About Your Job. When I told people I wanted to join the CIA (before I had to stop telling people I wanted to join the CIA because it looked like I might actually do it) I got a variation of one of two reactions, either "ARE YOU CRAZY?" or "That's SO COOL!" which are pretty much the same reactions I get when I tell people what I do now. People have no idea what your job actually entails, but that doesn't stop them on offering their "expert" advice on whether and how you should be doing it. Moreover, people are happy to reap the benefits of you having done your job while spouting off their NPR or Fox News gained opinions about the morality of you doing it.
3)You Drink the Patriotic Kool-Aid I know what people think; Democratic campaign operatives are all about raging against the machine. But my friends will tell you I'm very patriotic, sickeningly so. You have to be to do what we do, because what we do is sell a belief in American democracy, and you can't sell a product you don't believe in. If anything, working on campaigns has made me more patriotic as I've seen faith in the system (sometimes) rewarded. To me, the kind of patriotism you have to have to ask people to risk their lives to bring you information is similar to the kind of patriotism you have to have to call people day in and day out and ask them to give up their time. It's the kind of patriotism you choose to have, the kind you have to have because without it, your entire world view kind of falls apart.
4) You Have to Constantly Be Aware of Your Surroundings. Let me tell you a story about a charming and dynamic GOTV Director I know named Fancy. Fancy was blowing off some steam at a victory party when she non-nonchalantly remarked to a friend, "This was the strangest field campaign I've ever worked on." No sooner had these words left our beautiful heroine's lips than a reporter spun around on her bar stool like Dr. Claw stroking MAD cat and said, "I'm with the New York Times. Can you tell me what made you say that?" "Nope!," Fancy exclaimed and she ran away. Fancy was lucky that she narrowly escaped danger, but it served as a good reminder that as a representative of her candidate, she was never off the clock. True, campaign work is not as clandestine in nature as working for the Central Intelligence Agency, but in both cases your life is not fully your own. Which brings me to point 5...
5)It Makes "Having a Life" Nigh Impossible. This is probably the biggest similarity between clandestine services and political campaigns. Both require major sacrifices for your job. I hate to admit it, because is sounds so twisted, but a lot of what appealed to me about both career paths was the absurdity of them, the total immersion, the intensity. I have always been an intense person. After 4 years of my life being about sickness (I was diagnosed with a chronic illness shortly before my Freshman year of college) I was ready for it to be about something else and the further removed the better. One of the biggest blessings of working on campaigns is that they can be an escape from your troubles. At the same time self-care, friendships and relationships tend to fall by the wayside. One of my college friends jokes that she's never sure I didn't join the CIA since I disappear for large swaths of time and am effectively out of communication.
Say what you will about the ethics of our international intelligence operations, when it comes to the popular imagination spies are considered heroic, sexy, and highly intelligent whereas campaigners are considered...annoying? But I can tell you that my choice to follow that fateful email was one of the best and most important in my life and I can't imagine contributing more to my country in any other way. Just as much as operations officers, we are the unsung heroes who protect American values and that, my fellow field operatives, is badass.
Secret AGENT Nance! Secret AGENT Nance! She's calling for your numbers and taking away your name...