A Guide for D.C.’s Soul Survivors

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Torie Clarke dishes on thriving in Washington.

Torie Clarke
The key to surviving Washington and keeping your soul? "Find really good friends and stick with them," says Torie Clarke. (William Atkins/GW Today)
January 28, 2015

By James Irwin

Spend enough time in Washington, D.C., Torie Clarke says, and things begin to repeat themselves.

“The first lesson is if you stick around long enough you just keep bumping into the same people,” Ms. Clarke, former assistant secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld, joked Tuesday at a George Washington University event sponsored by the School of Media and Public Affairs and the Graduate School of Political Management.

That familiarity, kidding aside, she said, dovetails with a few tips for thriving in the capital city. Ms. Clarke—on campus to promote her new book, "A Survivor's Guide To Washington: How to Succeed Without Losing Your Soul"—and a panel of GW-affiliated D.C. veterans offered their advice on several topics, from building a professional network to dealing with defeat in a city where everyone, it seems, is keeping score.

“There are some fundamentals about how to take a job in this town and survive,” Ms. Clarke, B.A. ’82, said. “And one is: Find really good friends—find them and keep them close and be honest with them and be straight with them. What sustains you over time is the friends and colleagues you make.”

There’s a level of authenticity required to develop those close relationships, and not everyone in Washington makes the effort, said Jamie Baker, M.P.S. ’10, who has spent most of his career in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

“I’m going to remember you and go the extra mile for you if you know me as Jamie versus if you know me by virtue of my position,” he said. “I’m from Texas, and we have a thing there where we say, ‘You are who you are.’ People here say, ‘Be who you want to be. Don’t be who you are.’ And I disagree with that. Be who you are.”

In addition to common courtesy, this deeper approach to forming networks and relationships in D.C. can mean the difference between landing the right job or the wrong one. Washington, Ms. Clarke said, is a city where people move around. It’s important to choose career moves wisely.

“I haven’t worked for anyone whose policies I didn’t agree with personally,” said Janelle Carter Brevard, M.P.S. ’01, former senior adviser and speechwriter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “It makes it fairly easy to work for someone when you are in lock-step in terms of what you believe.”

Well-placed trust, said GW Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication Fellow P.J. Crowley (third from right), is vital to thriving in Washington. "Understand, within your organization, who you can trust to give you an honest perspective. When you go out there to a podium and you are representing a president, a country, you are only as good as the quality of the information you have." (William Atkins/GW Today)


That environment also is conducive to creating a forum for open dialogue. Washington, detractors are quick to point out, is a city of conflicting opinions. But discourse—well-formed opinions—is productive and valuable. Age, Ms. Clarke said, is not a barrier for soliciting ideas. “If I’m having a meeting and you’re in the room, you’re in there for a reason,” she said.

“You should be willing to share informed insight,” said GSPM Director Mark Kennedy, who served three terms in Congress. “The really good leaders want to hear people that can add to their knowledge and give them new views. If you have somebody who punishes you for expressing something that’s not in-line with their thinking, you are working for the wrong person.”

These tips—the need to be authentic, honest and form genuine friendships—can become career-savers. Washington, the panelists all said, is a town of high highs and low lows and a lot of abrupt professional changes. Ms. Clarke and Lorraine Voles, B.A. ’82, GW’s vice president for external relations, developed a strong friendship despite spending several elections on the opposite sides of campaigns. Forming those friendships across the political spectrum, they said, is critical.

“This is a relationship town,” Ms. Voles said. “I still remember a guy named Tom Dawson, who worked for a member from Iowa. I was coming off a losing campaign, looking for work, and I couldn’t get a job on the Hill, and this guy saw me. He didn’t have a job for me, but he was nice to me and gave me other people to talk to.

“What you need to do is you need to call people, have lunch with people, have coffee with people. Just keep networking.”

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