The Hill Life: Notes on a Scandal

We all like to pretend that it can’t happen to us.  That our Boss will never be the one on the wrong side of the 24-hour news cycle.  But let’s face it, if history is any indicator, no Congressman or Congresswoman is immune to the slings and arrows of sin and scandal.  If you work in politics, you could one day find yourself watching in horror as your Boss gives the “I take full responsibility” speech.  

So, what do you, the innocent staffer of said sandal-monger, do when your Boss falls into the fray?

Abandon the Internet.  When your livelihood is threatened by a scandal, large or small, it’s best to forget that Facebook, Twitter and blogs exist.  Especially if you’re from your Member’s district or state.  You’d be shocked how quickly even the least political of your friends and neighbors will begin actively tweeting your Boss’s impending demise.  And I speak from experience when I say that some of these quippy jabs can end friendships.

Wonkette, DCist, local news and political blogs, and any Gawker Media product should also be avoided.  If you work on the Hill, National Journal’s Hotline, esp. Last Call!, should also be given some time to breathe. 

The only thing worse than being mocked on the Internet is when these sites actually break the news before you, the staffer, know the details.  You’ll kill yourself speculating about what’s real and what’s conjecture, so it’s just best to avoid it all.  Unless you’re the press guy or COS, and then this is the job you signed on for, but drinks are on me.

Screen On.  Once your Boss’s name crops up in the 24-hour news cycle, relatives, long lost friends and lookie-loos will come out of the woodwork.  It’s best to just stop taking people’s calls.  The last person you want to commiserate with is the family member or college pal itching to get a little closer to the train wreck.  After all, this is their brush with greatness (or at least, newsworthiness) too.

Be Protective of Your Space.  Most reporters just aren’t willing to accept that you don’t know anything about what’s happening, even though they probably know more than you do.  And some of them become like rabid dogs when confronted with even a whiff of scandal, a juicy bone that they cannot resist. 

They do things like wandering into back offices to ambush staffers.  Camping out in the ladies’ restroom near the office.  And even following two unassuming junior staffers to the Penn Ave. Starbucks.  Horror stories about bad reporter behavior in the face of scandal are varied and endless.  But, muckraking is their job, you can’t hold it against them.  You just have to watch yourself.

Faced with such a foe, you have to learn to be protective of your space.  Don’t talk in front of strangers.  Not in the cafeteria.  Not on the walk to the Metro.  Not “hidden” in a nearby stairwell.  There is no safe space for you. 

Even after hours, you have to be careful.  Don’t go to happy hour at Hill haunts like Cap Lounge or Union Pub to commiserate with your pals.  If someone sees you, the headline will be, “Congressman’s Staff Drown Sorrows on Eve of Scandal.”  Nice, right?  Keep your thoughts inside your cubicle farm.

And if you ever feel threatened by the reporters camped outside your office—it’s rare, but it happens—call the Capitol Police. 

Should You Resign? Depends.  Could staying implicate you in criminality or in the cover up?  Then you should go.  If it’s a moral outrage issue, ask yourself if you can look past it.  If not, there’s the door.  But I wouldn’t recommend resigning because you hope to beat your Boss to the punch. 

Often, other Members, committees, parties and others will step up to hire the poor staffers who just got sucked into a scandal of someone else’s making.  There are also special benefits if you stay, like guaranteed pay for a couple of months.  So offering your letter might mean going it alone while everyone else gets a hand-up. 

Lastly, beware the creeping anger.  Sometimes, a scandal might be weathered just fine, and everyone goes back to work as usual.  But underneath, there can be a sense of betrayal.  You might start to feel like your Boss personally let you down, and if that feeling doesn’t subside, you should leave.  Otherwise the cancer of betrayal will eat you up.

Get Your Resume Ready.  Will it all come crashing down?  Rep. Jefferson got caught with $27k in cash in his freezer and survived his term.  Sen. Vitter was busted red handed in the red light district and he’s still in office.  And even if you’re not from Louisiana, a scandal is no guarantee that you’ll be walking the bread line in the near future.  But, just in case, it’s time to update that resume. 

In fact, in this business, you should always keep it updated. 

What Happens in Vegas.  Even if your Boss resigns or you quit in disgust, it’s best to keep your thoughts on the matter to yourself.  In this business, loyalty is important.  So if you sit down in the job interview and the prospective employer says, “So tell me about what happened to your last Boss.”  It’s best to keep mum.  If your future employer knows that you kept the old Boss’s secrets, even in the face of juicy gossip, he’ll know that you can keep his too.



  1. Colleen says:

    Good advice, Belle! “Be Protective of Your Space” is also good adivce for anyone working in or with political non-profits. In the age of Twtter, Facebook, and blogs anything can be repeated quickly, easily, and often out of context and used to damage an organization's reputation.

    June 8, 2011/Reply
  2. Jay says:

    Very, very good post. Now let's all hope none of us ever need to refer back to it!

    June 8, 2011/Reply
  3. Nina says:

    That comic reminds me of Rachel Maddow's Consequence-O-Meter

    June 8, 2011/Reply
  4. Zoe says:

    It's funny that now when I hear about a political scandal I immediately think “Their poor staff!”.

    June 8, 2011/Reply
  5. F says:

    Been there. Done that. I also now immediately think, “poor staff”. Good, sound advice. Prob would have been nice to know all of that when I was in that boat, but hindsight's always 20/20.

    June 8, 2011/Reply
  6. gingerr says:

    All good points. I think the Internet black-out is particularly wise.

    Other people remember professional behavior in stressful times; it will help build the kind of reputation that inspires people to lend you a hand (or a referral) when things are rough.

    June 8, 2011/Reply