Sine Die

(From The 2012 Session)

Sine Die: An Extraordinary Session

By Rae Hodge–

Ever tried holding your breathe to the count of 1,161? The AP says Peter Colat, a Swiss freediver, held his breathe underwater for 19 minutes and 21 seconds, breaking the world record in breath-holding. If that’s true, Colat might have a promising future in state government. At the LRC in Frankfort, you hold your breathe (and your tongue) for 4 months or until the smoke clears– whichever comes first.

There have been so many instances this semester that have knocked the breathe out of the interns and left them groping for words to describe the intensity and tone of the Capitol– a budget blitzkrieg at the eleventh hour, a fur-bristling redistricting lawsuit before the Kentucky Supreme Court, citizen rallies and protests, a crap shoot for statewide gambling, and a legislative-executive standoff that ripped through newspapers in the end. Each demonstration of the checks and balances of state government was a pivotal moment for students apprenticing in Frankfort’s sausage-making business.

Even a would-be journalist like myself didn’t escape the fray. Moving through the minefield of partisan political actions and maintaining objectivity is no easy task. Every inflection has to be guarded, every discussion neutral, and every gut impulse caught between the teeth. Things happen that would (and do) make any red-blooded Kentuckian go wild with indignation on the inside, but require stony indifference in response. Any student who is searching this internship out should be aware that they will likely be faced with circumstances that force them to think critically about their values and ethics. The exposure to extensive research, the demands of the legislature, and the drafting of legislation makes it unavoidable.

For instance, when a committee meeting to decide the fate of a contentious bill is only covered by in-house staff, it becomes evident that the truth and the official story risk eventually becoming one and the same. The peril of the 4th estate grows more evident as the press corps dwindles from 50 to 40 to 19. Watchdog journalism limps to the wayside when there are so few boots on the ground at the statehouse. To operate from within a successfully non-partisan state machine, one has to wring every sentiment from publication. Would-be interns, would  you be willing to hold your breathe and print the official story? Would it be worth doing so that you could see first-hand the construction of the machine? Would you be able to maintain the integrity of your position even after you were gone, remaining silent about those conversations to which you were privy in your capacity?

There are so many big questions which are important to consider about the 2012 session. One could go on for days explicating the methods of making ethical decisions as LRC staff and still never scratch the surface of what actually happened in the Capitol. Anyone who watched this season’s controversies unfold from the vantage point of the media can tell you that staff like myself had (and still have) much tongue-biting to do. But then, there are the smaller, more important things to consider…

You wouldn’t think that a palatial dome made of marble would get hot, but it does. The building is an old one, much older than air conditioning and “energy efficiency”. In the early spring Kentucky’s climate is prone to humid departures from the February frost, and sudden changes in temperature can produce unusual heat in spite of all that cool stone. By March and April, the heat has set in, and sunlight floods through the stained glass windows of the chambers. Then there’s the awful swarms of ghosts that hover over the sprawling second-floor mezzanine, some lobbying passers-by to hear their baleful petitions, some moaning for release after being conjured up in a floor speech. Some just want to smoke and can’t find an ashtray. They get caught in your hair, drag against your legs, cling to the skin, and tug on your collared shirt as you dash from chamber to chamber. The marble eats their echos, grows slick with sweat by Sine Die.

Interns click their heels along the floor in the halls, moving from one steaming office to another, chucking thick stacks of paper across desks and gathering up new loads. Seated between pistons are secretaries with eight arms. They are in constant motion, typing and revising and picking up phones and sending emails and swilling 30-weight coffee all at once, barely raising their heads in acknowledgement of newly-delivered material. To effectively command attention, one must make a substantive offering before the altar. Doughnuts are standard fare, muffins raise the ante, and a cleverly-arranged vegetable platter buys you three months of hard-to-curry favor wherein your calls are returned quickly and questions answered thoroughly.

Gossip is a two o’clock aperitif, and some folks like to indulge straight through until Happy Hour. Keep your distance, future interns. They’ll sip the story right out of you, and pass your name along to the thirsty. Next thing you know, everybody’s chatty on your dime. There’s no currency in the building that is more valuable than information. Do not sell it cheap. Stick with the doughnuts. And remember: gossip mongers love to spill to those they think they can impress. Be impressed and they will increase the value of their currency. Allow them to make deposits on your account but never withdrawals. This will prevent your name from being entered into their transactions with others.

The best armor is worn by the lawmakers. Armani and Anne Klein actually have a higher tensile strength within the Capitol walls than even steel and become impermeable to all of the 4 elements except whiskey. Keep this in mind when you speak to them, interns. Keep a good head on your shoulders even when they take a liking to you. Do not seek their favor by polishing their shields; lawmakers are not elected to protect you with them, and you are not hired to be a squire. At best, you are a field medic; be available to them when they require assistance and stay off the battlefield when they do not. Distribute your help first-come-first-serve, but be prepared to duck under the partisan firestorm to deliver information and help to both sides when the situation gets critical.

Another little-known fact about working in Kentucky state government is that after you survive a session you actually grow a tail. It gets longer every time the session’s end is gavelled down. Even the press corps is not immune to this aberration, although theirs tends to grow slower if they are doing their job properly. This being my first year, I have only a bit of a tufty bob that protrudes. It looks something like a goat’s. It has nothing to do with one’s position of authority so much as I can tell, but simply the amount of time one has spent in the building. For example, Norman Lawson, who could easily be said to have helped build the LRC with his years of devoted non-partisan service to the judicial and legislative branches of the state, has a rather majestic one– 30 feet long with plate-like bone protrusions, and scaled in a dull green that mirrors the shade of an old law clerk’s lamp. He moves slowly through the building, his accumulated years of length, sliding back and forth along the floor behind him. Quite dangerous to be on the wrong end of a person with that type of legacy, but marvelous to watch from a distance.

When I asked Norman why mine looked like a goat’s rather than scaled like his, he told me that mine might harden over time like some are prone to do, but that good journalists keep their tails short and their horns sharp. And if I did my job well, and kept hitting things head-on, I could avoid hauling around all the baggage over the years.

Each of us interns pulled something different out of this mixed bag of experiences. This is just one writer’s attempt to grasp four months and squeeze something out of it for the use of future interns. I hope that no one has the same experiences, and that you future students can each come out of it with something new and enlightening. If I had it to do over again, I would have written more down than even the box full of notes that I have now. I would have taken more pictures than the thousands that I have on the hard drive. I would have asked even more people more questions, covered even more meetings, and created one clone of myself for every committee.

Suspend your judgement but do not lose your reason, interns. Heed the ghosts and keep a cool head. Build a network with the administrative staff, and make regular offerings to them. Horde information and be bold in your accuracy and delivery. Most importantly, watch out for the long tails, and make sure to keep yours short.

Signing off,

The Colonel


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