Young Bucks inside the Beltway
A day with friends and partisans in the presidential election year.
By By Peter Nichols • Photography by Dustin Fenstermacher
"One thing people should understand,” Andy Logan ’09 says about his job, “is that it’s not glamorous. It’s an office with six desks — tight quarters — people are on the phone; it’s noisy, a lot of back and forth, hustle and bustle.”
Logan works in Washington, D.C., as a legislative correspondent on the staff of Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), where he manages a portfolio of policy issues, briefs the senator, coordinates with the Special Committee on Aging, and sometimes represents the lawmaker with national and state groups as well as the voters back home. Before that, he was a legislative aide for Senator Sam Brownback (R), now governor of Kansas. As a kid, he tuned in to CNN while his friends watched Nickelodeon.
Logan is earnest, thoughtful and confident. At Bucknell, he was involved in student government, serving as vice president for the Class of 2009 and on other student committees and posts. He keeps his political passions tamped down beneath a sober assessment of principles, policies and inside-the-beltway shenanigans. In his room, a copy of The Power Game: How Washington Works rests on a low table.
Downstairs, a chorus of groans and expletives erupts. Guys with beers are watching the Denver Broncos take on the New England Patriots on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It’s a Patriots crowd.
Logan recalls his first days as a staffer for then-Senator Brownback. A big part of that job was answering phones. At the time, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, ridiculed by Republicans as “Obamacare,” was being hotly debated on Capitol Hill — and across the country.
“Kansas is unabashedly red,” Logan says. “For six or seven months, every day — all day — the phones lit up. You’d have four or five people on hold, and you’d just sit there and listen to every single one of them. The folks back home didn’t want it, so we had to take some heat. It was brutal. I told myself, ‘I’m new here, this is my role, I can do it.’” Senator Brownback — and every other Republican in Congress — voted against the bill, which was passed by the Democratic majority.
Logan is one of several Bucknellians from the Class of 2009 who moved to the nation’s capital to take up jobs either directly or indirectly with the federal government. “We all graduated, went home for a few days and then met up in D.C.,” says Joey Ross ’09.
Andrew Swindell ’09 adds, “From an economic point of view, it seemed like there were more jobs here than elsewhere. And at Bucknell we’d all been involved with Washington in some way, shape or form, so it seemed like a pretty easy transition to the real world.”
Andy Logan, Joey Ross, Andrew Swindell and Scott Gosnell ’09 were already living and working in Washington for a year when they sat down together to do a Craigslist house hunt. “Everyone’s lease was up at the same time, so we all decided, Why not?” explains Ross McCarron ’09, who lives with the group but works in the private sector. “The political scene wasn’t a factor in my moving to D.C. It was more a necessity of finding a steady job.” All five were fraternity brothers and lived together at the Sig Ep house.
Since September 2010, they have lived in a big Victorian house with nine fireplaces, high ceilings and a carved, dark-oak balustrade. Furnishings are in the style of itinerant-eclectic: random pieces picked up on the way from just-out-of-college to someplace-else. Driving down 13th Street from the house in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, you can see the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome not far off.
“I remain impressed by the caliber of folks who work here,” Gosnell says. “D.C. is one of the only cities where, chances are, your bartender is smarter and more educated than you are. It’s a city of highly educated, highly motivated, slightly underpaid, passionate people.”
Gosnell, a big-voiced Texan, is deputy press secretary in the office of Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), where he tracks the news, talks to reporters, pitches the senator to the media and labors daily to drive the boss’s message before the public. “It’s fun,” he says. “You go to work in the morning, do your job, and then you see the results on the news that evening.” After graduating, he came to D.C. as a legislative staffer with Congressman John Culberson (R-Texas). He started as a legislative correspondent, answering phones and other communications, then moved up to legislative assistant to handle more meaty tasks like keeping the congressman up to date on issues, networking with industry insiders and interest groups and preparing legislation with congressional staffers involved with the House Committee on Appropriations. He confides, “I can’t walk through the Capitol rotunda without being a bit in awe of the architecture and of what we do here.”
Logan, Gosnell and Ross first got to know each other as part of Bucknell’s Global Residential College, where they lived in Smith Hall and discussed world cultures and globalization with other first-year students and the international relations faculty. “Andy and I stood out for being a bit to the right,” Gosnell recalls. “The liberals challenged us, and we challenged them back.”
That right/left, red/blue divide sets Logan and Gosnell against Ross and Swindell in political conversations. When they first moved to Washington, Ross and Swindell shared an apartment that was dubbed “Lib America” by Logan and Gosnell, who roomed together a few blocks away in “Gitmo.”
McCarron tends to stay on the sidelines when conversations turn to politics, savoring his housemates’ wonkish brilliance. “Let’s just say he doesn’t have a dog in the fight,” Gosnell says.
McCarron was an economics major who took accounting and other courses to beef up his résumé for work in the financial sector. “We graduated in the teeth of the recession,” he notes, “especially in the market for the kinds of jobs I was looking for.” He worked two temp jobs after graduation while applying for positions in New York and Boston. It wasn’t until June 2010 that he landed a permanent job as a junior analyst, compiling investment-performance reports for Cambridge Associates, a consulting firm just across the Potomac in Arlington.
Ross and Swindell both work in the Arlington office of John Snow, Inc. (JSI), and they both made their first connection with the giant public-health consulting firm at Bucknell.
Long interested in international affairs, Ross founded a Bucknell chapter of GlobeMed, a nationwide, student-led group that works with grassroots organizations around the world to improve health and fight poverty. Swindell suggested that his girlfriend’s mom, a manager at JSI, would be a good panelist for a speaker series on global health that they were putting together through GlobeMed. Afterward, she offered Ross a JSI internship.
The internship got him through JSI’s door; it was his experiences with the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua that really turned him down the path of international development. He volunteered at a health clinic doing Spanish translation and plenty of manual labor in Nueva Vida. “I was living in this little corner of the world,” he says, “where I recognized that my fate and everyone else’s fate are linked together.”
At JSI, Ross backstops the Nigeria and Mozambique operations for the firm’s global logistical network, which ships massive quantities of medical supplies from giant pharmaceutical companies to developing countries, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that is just one piece of the U.S. State Department’s policy of diplomacy and compassion. “My hands are on a keyboard now,” he says, while also lamenting, “There’s nothing glamorous about sitting at a spreadsheet and crunching numbers.”
His job bridges communication between JSI offices in-country and program management in D.C. to make sure projects — from executing transportation contracts for a national malaria bed-net campaign in Nigeria to forecasting the need for contraceptives in Mozambique next year — stay on target. “It’s a matter of getting the right kind of medicine to the right place at the right time,” he says.
Last September, he stepped into the program officer slot, which will require more travel. “It’s a cool lifestyle,” he anticipates. “When I go to those warehouses, and they’re packed full of boxes that say ‘from the American people,’ I expect that’ll be a good feeling, knowing that they got there in part because, damn, I did a great job on those spreadsheets.”
By John Snow standards, the projects Swindell manages for the firm in Liberia are fairly small. He first went to Liberia on a summer internship paid for with a Bucknell Public Interest Program Scholarship. Liberia was recovering from nearly 20 years of uncommonly savage civil war. “The capital, Monrovia, was devastated,” he remembers. “When I went there in 2008, the buildings were completely stripped of everything — windows, metal, wiring. Seeing the effects of war and poverty — going to the grocery store and being flooded by amputees begging for money — made me want to get involved.”
When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power, she established the Liberian Fellows Program to recruit Liberians who had fled. She hoped emigrants educated abroad would return temporarily and train civil servants in finance, agriculture, education, transportation and other critical fields of expertise. As program officer, Swindell manages daily operations for this as well as the Young Professionals Program, a similar initiative that enlists in-country professionals with advanced degrees. Once each year, he travels to Monrovia to check in with government ministries and take the programs’ pulse. “Every time I go back,” he says, “I can see concrete changes: buildings getting renovated, streets getting paved, markets and restaurants opening up, nightlife coming back.”
With Thursday night visits to favorite bars and occasional concerts that McCarron rounds up for the boys, the rhythm of life retains some vestiges of a college frat, but Logan confesses that getting to bed earlier is looking pretty good these days. Swindell moved out last fall and lives down the block but stops by often to raid the fridge and hang out. Each of the housemates expects to move on to grad school soon. Logan has applied to law school for the fall. Gosnell will take the LSATs over the summer. The others are considering advanced studies in economics, international relations or perhaps development policy.
Gosnell expects to stay in Washington as a congressional staffer until walking the rotunda no longer inspires goose bumps. The other four are less sure of where the path they are treading is taking them. “I’m discovering a career as I move along,” Swindell observes. “I know the right steps to take but not the destination.” As their career and grad-school choices become more defined, the one thing that does seem certain is the road that took them from Bucknell to D.C. is forking now in several directions. The future coming into view just over the horizon looks bright, they say, but it’s not without a threat of darkening clouds.
Part of the millennial generation, they envision their life investments in education and junior-level jobs paying off in the 2020s with more glamorous careers and families and homes with front yards — the fruition of their American Dream. They call it their “Roaring ’20s.” But they also see the pain and uncertainty brought down on Millennials by the Great Recession and Washington’s ongoing failure to bring the federal deficit under control and lay out a sound, agreed-upon vision for the economic future.
“Governing the country is one of the most important responsibilities you can be entrusted with, and politicians are not doing their job,” declares Ross, who is frustrated, even peeved, that Boomers seem to be leaving a colossal debt on the doorstep of their children. “Our elected officials are afraid that, if they do their job, they’ll lose it. There are a lot of hurdles in front of us, and I’m just wondering when they’re going to start jumping them.”
Ross’ comment points back to an address by the inaugural speaker at the Bucknell Forum during the presidential-election year of 2008. Logan and Gosnell were part of the task force that established the national speaker series, which continues to bring high-profile figures to Bucknell’s campus. Veteran television journalist Tim Russert, who was part of that year’s Citizen and Politics in America series, called attention to the polarization that was paralyzing Washington then. “The situation there is poisonous,” he told the crowd. “People don’t want to talk to each other; they want to fight. They want to arm for the next election.”
Bucknell Associate Professor of Political Science Scott Meinke makes a similar point. “Since the 1970s, the two parties in the House and the Senate have become much more ideologically cohesive, and a wide ideological gap has emerged between them. As members of Congress polarize ideologically, they give more power to the party leadership to pursue partisan goals. The consequence of these changes is the most polarized Congress since the 19th century, a Congress in which bipartisan agreement on major policy changes — and often minor ones, too — is extremely difficult to achieve.”
But Gosnell insists that it’s not the pot-boiling rhetoric and sound-bite distortions that tell the story of what’s really happening on the Hill. “There’s a lot of good work being done, and it’s more than meets the eye.” Logan maintains that, “this place doesn’t appear to ever move or change or shake, but it does in small ways every day.” He’s also aware that, with big problems like the high cost of health care, impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, the national debt, political gridlock and other chronic systemic issues, “We’re heading for a cliff that’s not too far off.” The need for reform is as urgent as it is great.
“It’s not easy,” he continues. “If it were, we’d have already fixed it, and we’d be living in the land of lollipops and rainbows.” What gives him hope for our divided and fractious nation is all the effort and thought he sees politicians and staffers put into working the system and moving legislation through — even if it’s slow and messy and rancorous. “It’s supposed to work that way,” he observes. “The thing about politics is that a sober mind is more valuable than anything else.”
When political discussions start up among his housemates, they can often be divided along partisan fault lines: raise taxes vs. reduce them, better regulation vs. smaller government, diplomacy and aid vs. military action. “We know we disagree,” Logan says, “but when we talk, the key is not to talk about the politics but about the issues and the policy solutions.”
“What it comes down to,” McCarron summarizes, “is that we’re friends, and we’re not going to not be friends because we have different beliefs and opinions.” What they have in common may not close the divide, but what they do share makes what they don’t share feel less divisive. “When I go to work, the expectation is that I’m ‘political,’” Logan says, “but when I go home, why would I care about all that vitriol when I can be with friends?”
With majors in history and Spanish, Logan learned that rather simple lesson in the Bucknell en España program, during a semester in Granada, Spain. Being in a different culture in a city full of fountains where the people gathered for late-night dinners and took siestas helped him to “detox” from the stresses and struggles of getting ahead. “It didn’t make me into this laid-back, chilled-out guy, but it helped me to step back and relax. I learned that I can turn it on and turn it off, and still get work done while enjoying the better things in life.”
Gosnell, a double major in classics and philosophy, keeps an eye on those better things too. Ever the political romantic, he is enamored with the rituals and symbols that lend grandeur and gravity to governing the nation. The fasces — a bundle of rods bound together around an axe — he points out, is a symbol of civic authority that was borne before high magistrates of the Roman Republic and is emblematic of the principles and historical precursors that inspired the founding fathers. It signifies power through unity — a harmony rooted in all the blessings that we share.
“That symbol is all over the capital,” he muses. There are big bronze fasces on both sides of the flag that hangs behind the rostrum in the House of Representatives. And the ceremonial mace, processed into the chamber before the Speaker when the House is in session, is a fasces topped by an eagle. “They plant it in a stand and go about the people’s business. Does having that knowledge directly affect my career? I don’t know, but it certainly makes life — and working here — more enjoyable.”
Peter Nichols is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, Pa.