Some time this month there will be dozens—scores, maybe, even hundreds—of senior government officials purchasing or receiving as gifts countdown clocks, ticking away the hours, days, and minutes until noon on January 20, 2017. They will put these gadgets on their desks and joke about them. And then they will go to all-hands meetings at which they will give their subordinates rousing injunctions like “Sprint across the finish line!” “Leave it all on the field!” or, as President Obama has already said, “We’re going to stay on offense!”
These gizmos with electrons, which replace the trickling hourglasses of bygone years, are the more accurate indicator of mood than the cheerleading. To be sure, the true believers (there are always a few of those left, particularly in the White House in the last year of an administration) will be inspired for a little while by the slogans. The rest are already sending around resumes, and fretting that they should have bailed out earlier. These sub-cabinet officials have begun to get the queasy feeling that maybe the administration they gave their all to was not quite as successful as they have been telling their increasingly unsympathetic spouses all along. They have not quite figured out, but soon will, that they may be called assistant secretaries, but that does not mean that anyone wants to hire them at the salaries they think they deserve, for the responsibilities they think they can handle, dealing with matters they find interesting.
A lot of the real high-fliers have left office long since—they knew that the time to cash in was when they could still trade on the appearance if not the reality of inside knowledge and influence. The veterans of previous administrations, other than hardened civil servants, also know just how dispiriting this last year will be, and quietly said to themselves some time ago, “Once is enough for me.” What remains is an odd amalgam of dedicated professionals and patriots, fevered acolytes, tenured professors (who alone know exactly what they will be doing come January 21), kids, and Washington climbers who can spend the rest of their lives refraining from correcting people who mistakenly put “The Honorable” in front of their names.
The insiders realize an administration has entered its terminal decline when they notice that foreign diplomats and senior journalists take a decidedly more relaxed view of their pronouncements than once they did. The invitations to the large receptions still come, but the intimate, probing lunches and dinners grow fewer. Your views are met neither with anxiety, nor urgent efforts to dissuade, but with a benign tolerance bordering on indifference. What is worse, you begin to notice that the foreigners are wining and dining advisers either to the opposition party or (worse in some ways) to the candidate of the incumbent party. The latter group—your former colleagues—have begun carefully but publicly edging away from the policies you and they once made together, and to blame you for having screwed them up.
An administration in its last year resembles a small woodland creature reaching the end of its life, seeking only a quiet burrow in which to meet its demise. Like that moribund animal, an administration will exhibit pointless twitches of frantic activity before the very end. These mostly involve extensive foreign travel to nice or particularly interesting places, which gets you away from the polite yawns of Congressmen and Senators (and worse, their staffs) that meet your opinions back home. But sooner or later you return to Washington, and there realize that your unglamorous duty consists chiefly in leaving the dog’s breakfast of a policy in the least-desperate shape you can for the next team.
Some officials, even the President, yield to delusions of major accomplishments still remaining. This is a particularly dangerous temptation for the woodland creature, whose stock of vital energy is dwindling steadily. In the final year of an administration an uneven team stumbles and bumbles more and more. The limbs are no longer coordinated, if ever they were. Everyone is exhausted. It is a bad time to try new things, particularly when it has sunken in, to friend and foe alike, that your time remaining is limited. A dying administration’s threats, like its promises, do not carry much weight, and for the same reason. Its increasingly strident defenses of itself convince no one—even some of those making them.
And then, there are the civil servants, once so accommodating, even obsequious, now merely compliant (most of the time) and polite. They are also reaching out to the other side, because they know that an administration is for eight years, but they are there for life, or so they hope. If they genuinely like you, they are still friendly; if they do not, they no longer bother to pretend. They are girding themselves for the inevitable new administration, though not with pleasure. The Iron Law of Transitions, a senior diplomat confided during my own countdown, is that “However much you hate the current bunch of bastards, you will hate the next bunch of bastards even more.”
As the woodland creature’s aimless wanderings in the thickets of policy come to an end, it dreams of an afterlife. In its more innocuous form, this takes the shape of book contracts. If he or she can find a literary agent, however, which is unlikely, the Assistant Secretary for Performance Compliance will probably learn that no market for any such book exists. The lucrative memoirs are those blasted out while the administration is still in office, ripping the President’s staff, and by implication, the Great Man himself.
The more pathetic daydream is of remaining policy-relevant. Officials bailing out in the last year or so may land in some think tank, proposing audacious and complex solutions to the problems they helped create. They never quite explain why they never got those solutions through the interagency process while they were inside, nor why anyone should pay attention to them now. But it is a consolation. Like Machiavelli slinking off to a farm after being tortured by the new rulers of Florence but every night donning his robes of state and studying Livy, they hope to relive their glory days by pondering high policy in a corner office. But whereas Machiavelli wrote The Prince and The Discourses, they will have to make do with an op-ed, which, after several rejections, has been rewritten into incomprehensibility by a disdainful 24-year-old.
In those last months everything slows down and is quiet, like Washington traffic during a blizzard, or Madison Avenue in the early months of the Great Recession. There are those last visits to the West Wing, where it has become more important than ever to scoop up some of those boxes of M&M’s with the presidential seal. There is the vain hope that the Secretary will ladle out an appropriate honor or two. There is the wistful sigh as you settle into the back seat of the black car that comes to pick you up for your last bit of government travel from Andrews Air Force Base. You encounter the forced courtesies of the transition team, which thinks that, given the follies of the administration they are replacing, you are either a fool or a knave. You have more time than you know what to do with. You stop fighting for a seat at the Deputies’ Committee meeting. You lose interest in the daily intelligence feed.
All that is left to do is to sink into a chair, fire up YouTube, and endlessly watch Anna Kendrick singing “When I’m Gone”—knowing deep down, however, that they really will not miss you. You no longer matter, and, as the life energies ebb, you no longer wish to.
Then, on the stroke of noon, January 20—oblivion.