Anyone who has worked in the free market of ideas instinctively hates Washington, DC. That’s because there is no free market in DC, for ideas or for anything else. It’s a small-minded town on a hypertrophic scale, a Southern town gone Napoleonic, which is to say it’s backward and inbred and beady-eyed and paranoid while ruling over an empire. Hanging around with sources in Washington reminded me of the creeps I used to know as a teenager on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, another kind of Appalachia with money. I remember with special disgust a guy named Sean M., who had a 14-inch penis and would wander about at parties slapping his dick on people’s shoulders – you’d notice the crotch stink first, then the weight of the object. Then the cackle as it was pulled away. Sean, who was fat and bespectacled, went on to consume much cocaine with his parents’ cash card, and he was probably recently running a piece of Bear Stearns with his dick in his mouth.
I lived in DC briefly in the autumn of 2007, working on a story about mass government databases compiled from illegal surveillance of American citizens. I meet a source for the story on one of those unnatural swampy-warm Potomac nights. Veteran DC lawyer, beautiful suit, beautiful briefcase, calm clamminess of slicked hair, has worked all his life for big law firms, looks carved in wax, like he’s never seen the sun or sought a pleasure he couldn’t have. We exchange information. He seems to know the gamut of the players in the parties, making no distinctions of Right and Left, for they are “all friends,” the favorites in the revolving door of intelligence and Defense and State and the industries and institutions that depend on government, the Georgetown Universities, the thinktanks, the weapons companies, the Washington Post, the “places that matter.” During our interview I have the urge to reach across the table and smack the reptile on the face and see what happens.
The people here feel big because the government is big and obviously because DC is the seat of federal power, which persists despite year after year of proven antagonism to everything we imagine and idealize as American – independence of enterprise, honesty of expression, heterodoxy in opinion, rebelliousness in action. The imperial capitol maintains record levels of employment despite what downturns may occur in that zone of nobodies known as the rest of the country, and whichever the wind that blows with the administration, a job at the beltway teat is as certain as the sunrise in the east, though officials may be employed to prove the sun rises elsewhere. A welfare town for white people – that’s DC. As for ideas: the only idea here is that the bigness of the thing shall be perpetuated, the money shall keep flowing from our pockets to somewhere we know not and often cannot know, that change will always come in the guise of the same little men wearing the carnival masks that say Change and Hope (every election year the drivel as constant as the seasons of a circus: wasn’t it Bill Clinton, the clown from Hope, who sought “change” in DC?).
During those two zombie months that I wasted in Washington, I got to drinking at the National Press Club, which was enjoying its own election for president. The guy who slipped me into the bar at the NPC, which is members only, was Wayne Madsen, one of the great unsung investigative reporters of our time, who lives on what sounds like the edge of bankruptcy in a little apartment in Arlington, Va. Madsen was running for the presidency of the club as an insurgent in what is most often a fixed event – there normally is no challenger to the club-ordained pick.
When in DC you find a human like Madsen, someone decent, it’s as reassuring as I imagine finding air on the moon. Madsen likes to get crocked on alcohol, which made us instant friends. He has the look and laugh of a goblin crossed with Falstaff – bulging stomach and bug eyes and a goatee smattered on several chins. He appears to have an insatiable appetite for Guinness stout and ribs and corned beef (though he not long ago sold his car, taking public transit, working off the meat lard). He is out at all hours meeting sources in parks and the backs of hotel bars and in stairwells, most of them aggrieved officers from the NSA and CIA who feed him information that no one else will publish. Madsen himself is a former Naval Intelligence officer and National Security Agency analyst who later spent seven years with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the public interest research group.
What I like most about Madsen, especially in the swamp of self-regarding overdressed queen-journos in DC, is that his blog, the Wayne Madsen Report, knows how to make a joke, and in fact it serves as a running commentary on the hilarious weirdness of the US government. “Even Bush’s Crap is Classified Top Secret,” he reports, relating how the Secret Service scoops up George Bush’s feces during visits to “compromised foreign toilets.” White House “toilet security,” or “TOILSEC,” does not want foreign intelligence culling the shit for clues to the contents of the presidential stomach. (And if you don’t believe it, note that, in an era when the merest medical conditions of top political leaders are state secrets, the Israeli Mossad has conducted “sewage pipe ops” against Syrian President Hafez Assad, and during Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Washington in 1987, the CIA reportedly “placed a special trap under a sewage tank to collect the Soviet leader’s bodily waste for analysis.”)
Madsen likes writing about shit. He reports that Paul Wolfowitz a few years back crapped himself following a rocket attack on his hotel in Iraq. According to Madsen, who cited sources on the scene, Wolfowitz, “in tears,” was “running through the hotel lobby in his underpants with a blanket thrown over his head.” A reporter who spoke to Madsen “saw that the seat of Wolfowitz’s underpants was soiled with a very visible stain.” Madsen has also of course broken stories that got picked up by the mainstream, for which he was mostly ignored. It was Madsen who first revealed Wolfowitz’ nepotistic favors to his girlfriend, Shaha Reza, at the World Bank, a scandal which forced Wolfowitz to resign; it was Madsen who first reported that CNN was employing US Army psy-ops personnel at their headquarters in Atlanta; it was Madsen who first detailed the illegal dealings between NSA operatives and the Maryland State Police to set up a domestic spying apparatus.
One NPC member, an ex-reporter for a gateway newspaper, tells me, “When his stuff gets corroborated by the big guys at the Post and the Times – and they do corroborate it – they don’t run with it because they want someone like the head of the CIA to come out and admit it,” says the ex-reporter, who (tellingly) wouldn’t let me use his name. “They want to be handed the story. They certainly don’t want to take a risk. Don’t want to look like they’re crazy. Wayne doesn’t care if he looks like he’s crazy.”
The NPC, which celebrated its centennial in 2008, was founded mostly to have a place where reporters could get blind drunk and make fools of themselves, so Madsen was the ideal president. “I want to be in the office so that I get a call, ‘Mr. President, George Bush is on the phone,” he tells me. Ex-president Gil Klein said recently, “I’d like to tell you [the press club] was founded for some lofty journalistic reason, like protection of the First Amendment, but the fact of the matter is that in 1908 the bars in Washington closed at midnight.” The club was showcasing the vaunted hundred-year anniversary with a documentary film and many parties – Bob Schieffer was expected to tell audiences that the NPC is “a national treasure” – yet the membership no longer boozes much at the bar. The rolls are in decline. The reporters instead mouse at their desks, wait for e-mails, text on cellphones, and go home to ranchettes in McLean and townhouses on the river in Alexandria. The Washington Post apparently has been the chief player in reducing the influence of the National Press Club. It was the Washington Post that first established a separate “press club” outside the auspices of the NPC, for the purpose (I am told by the drunks at the NPC) of circumscribing information, keeping it inside the bloc, keeping it approved, insuring that the babblings and hearsay of the NPC – where journalists once upon a time tackled each other with their leads – would no longer get in the way of a streamlined operation.
So much for the free market of ideas. Madsen lost by a landslide the election for the presidency of the NPC. The incumbent victor was an editor at The Journal Gazette, in Fort Wayne, Ind., where madmen who crap themselves in the pursuit of power will not make the headlines.
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s and many other magazines, and is currently working on a book, “The United States Must End.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.