After nearly 40 years in Washington, I'm leaving the nation's capital pretty much as I found it when I arrived. The players have changed, but the problems haven't.
Richard Nixon occupied the White House then, and the United States was involved in a long and unpopular war and faced economic problems at home. In 1971, to combat nearly 6 percent inflation, and a trade and balance-of-payments deficit, and to protect the value of the dollar, Nixon imposed a 90-day freeze on wages and prices, and a 10 percent import surcharge, and ended the convertibility of dollars into gold. He also launched the war on drugs -- a 'war' we still haven't won.
Forty years later, Barack Obama presides over an economy in far worse shape than has existed at any point in the intervening period, and the U.S. is about to lose its ability to borrow money -- yet Congress and the president can't agree on how to fix it. Relations between congressional Republicans and Democrats are as rancorous as they were during the Watergate period, maybe more so. (I can say that with some authority because I worked on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings.) And the U.S. is involved in another unpopular war, in Afghanistan, the longest in our history.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. But just as Americans got through the lousy economy of the 1970s, I'm confident we'll recover from the mess we're in now. Unemployment will recede, and so will government spending -- not because of political deal-making but because Americans will boot politicians who fail to do their job out of office and replace them with those who will. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
I look back on a life in politics that took me from Capitol Hill to the Reagan White House to the public policy and media worlds with as much frustration as pride. Some of the policies I hoped to play a role in changing -- like racial preferences in hiring and education -- have become so ingrained and widespread many people no longer seem to notice their corrosive effect.
But there were successes as well as failures, albeit modest ones. Bilingual education -- which as columnist Michael Barone once quipped is neither bilingual nor education -- has largely been replaced by English instruction for non-English speakers, a goal I advocated for more than 30 years.
And I met -- and in some cases worked for -- some truly great Americans during my Washington years. President Reagan tops the list. It was a great privilege to work in the Reagan administration, first as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and later as director of public liaison at the White House.
Even President Reagan's critics acknowledged that he was a true leader, but it has taken time and the publication of his handwritten diaries and speeches for some people to recognize the intellectual skills that those of us who worked with him saw first-hand.
But there were also Democrats I admired -- even when I didn't always agree with them. Former Vice President and Senator Hubert Humphrey was a gentleman to the end of his long political life in 1978. I first met him when I was a young lobbyist walking the halls of Congress. And even as he fought cancer, he never failed to be the "happy warrior," as he was known, with a smile and a kind word for everyone he met.
Unfortunately, I've also encountered some downright mean-spirited and arrogant politicians. I won't name names, but suffice it to say that they can be found on both sides of the political aisle. I won't miss having to deal with the outsized egos Washington breeds, but I will miss the many good friends and colleagues I've worked with over the years.
I leave Washington to return to my childhood roots in Colorado. I've lived almost two-thirds of my life in the East, but the West is in my blood. I'll still be commenting on what goes on inside the Beltway, but with a new perspective. I'll call on the insights I've earned working in Washington, but now I'll be looking in from the outside, like most Americans.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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