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Some deride D.C. as a swamp. To others, it's an idealistic place to do good

Visitors sit around the base of the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol building in the distance.
Samuel Corum
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Getty Images
Visitors sit around the base of the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol building in the distance.

Washington, D.C., is a frequent target for scorn. Politicians run against so-called "Washington insiders" and degrade the Capitol City as a swamp.

It's been that way for a long time. Washington has always been thought of as a swamp, says writer and journalist Timothy Noah.

"Even before it was built, Thomas Treadwell, an Anti-Federalist New York state senator, called it a political hive where all the drones in the society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land."

Yes, there are some hoping to enrich themselves with federal contracts and to corruptly influence government policy, but Noah, whose latest The New Republic article is called "Washington Is Not a Swamp," points out that there's "this other" Washington that's seldom discussed. "It's the Washington that those of us who live here encounter on a daily basis," he says.

For them, the District symbolizes a place where good can be done.

Drawn to work in D.C. by a sense of mission

It was in "this other" Washington, right outside the city at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where the blueprint for the COVID-19 vaccine was developed by researchers working for the government.

Supporters of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a campaign rally in 2016 in Springfield, Ohio. Trump campaigned on a  promise to "drain the swamp" of lobbyists and special interests — though Washington's influence industry remained during his administration.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
Supporters of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a campaign rally in 2016 in Springfield, Ohio. Trump campaigned on a promise to "drain the swamp" of lobbyists and special interests — though Washington's influence industry remained during his administration.

"The blueprint for the COVID vaccine was was not invented by private companies," Noah says. "It was invented by a small group of people at the NIH. And the reason that private industry was able to produce vaccines so quickly was that the basic research had already been done."

Federal agencies do everything from overseeing more than 400 National Parks to processing tax returns to designing complex telescopes and launching them into deep space.

One of those agencies is a part of Customs and Border Protection and is working to stop the import of goods produced by forced labor in countries like China. It's led by Eric Choy, who says that forced labor is a global problem around the world and that an estimated 25 million people "suffer under conditions of forced labor."

Choy joined CBP after spending time in the military. Like many in government, he says he's drawn to the work by a sense of mission.

"Our homeland and our values are those things that have always appealed to me to be a part of — of service, to something larger and greater than myself," he says.

Choy, whose team at CBP was honored last year by the Partnership for Public Service's Service to America Medal, grew up in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, in a community with civil servants, members of the military and congressional staffers. He doesn't see Washington as a swamp.

"Whether it's to improve the lives of folks in specific neighborhoods, or housing, or the climate and the environment, regardless of where you sit, as far as positioning, everyone seems to come here to work," he says.

It's "easy to make D.C. a punching bag," says Christy Delafield, who works for FHI 360, a nonprofit aid group that applies science to human development challenges such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

But Delafield, who moved to D.C. in 2004, sees the city as a place where decisions were being made that affect lives. "I [thought I] could go and be a part of helping make these systems, whether it's the global health system, whether it's financial systems, whether it's humanitarian aid systems, how do we make that work as well as it can," she says.

There are a number of different Washingtons, she says.

"There are a lot of different layers. I've met native Washingtonians who know the history and love the school system and have great memories and stories of growing up here. And and I've met community members who feel a little bit like the national dialogue around Washington sort of ignores the fact that there are people that live there," Delafield says.

Democrats and Republicans alike, she says, work "really hard from different perspectives to try to make the world a better place in their time in D.C."

This sense of purpose extends to those who work in Congress, too

Ryan O'Toole, a congressional staffer, moved to Washington from Ohio hoping to bring the small-town values of his community to the Capitol.

"I come from a sort of politically active family in that we were always having conversations about American political history around the dinner table," he says. "I think that that kind of started the baseline for my desire to have some sort of civic engagement in my professional life."

Senate staffers wearing protective masks carry the Electoral College ballot boxes in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., U.S., on Jan. 6, 2021 in the hours after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building.
Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senate staffers wearing protective masks carry the Electoral College ballot boxes in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., U.S., on Jan. 6, 2021 in the hours after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building.

On Jan. 6th last year, O'Toole was in the House chamber with his boss, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as the Capitol was overrun by a pro-Trump mob. He recalls seeing Senate staffers carrying the boxes that contained the electoral college votes to safety. He calls them unsung heroes.

"But for them, we would have had a major constitutional crisis further than what we had," O'Toole says. "I think examples like that exist across our government. And that certainly flies in the face of the characterization that it's a swamp."

Washington is not a swamp, not even literally.

It is a community, big and diverse. Sure, there are those who come to get rich or famous, but in some four decades as a reporter covering the city and its institutions, I've found many more say they're just trying to do some good.

Brian Naylor, who joined NPR in 1982 and covered both the White House and Congress, is retiring this month.

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