As you now know, with all due respect to T.S. Eliot, January, not April, can be the cruelest month if you've just lost your seat in the Congress. Election night was bad enough. You gave your concession speech before sobbing family and friends. At 3 a.m. you woke up lying on your back, staring at the ceiling and praying that it was just a nightmare.
But the political gods had even more torture in store for you. They created "Lame Duck" sessions deviously designed to depress you even further. You lost your Senate seat, but then you had to rush back to Washington and pretend -- along with everyone else -- that you didn't. You were there, but not there. You were on the Senate floor. You were casting votes and feeling fraudulent about it. Even worse -- you had to chair a hearing. You adjourned the committee. The room emptied, and you put the gavel down for the last time thinking: "I'll never have that kind of power again." And you won't, if you insist on seeing power as coming only from getting elected.
Like you, I lost a Senate race. Unlike you, I was not an incumbent Senator, but a four-term House member who gave up my "safe" seat to make the run. And unlike you, I didn't come to D.C. from vintage political DNA. Landrieu, the daughter of a New Orleans mayor (and the sister of the current mayor). Hagan, the daughter of a long-time mayor and the niece of Senator Lawton Chiles. Udall, the son of "Mo," a thirty year giant in the U.S. House. Pryor, the son of a senator and governor. And Begich, the son of a congressman. So much devastation done to the country's political gene pool in just one night!
After Lame Duck Hell, you went home, wanting distance from D.C. Welcome to January, when the next Congress is sworn in, and you are officially gone. I guarantee you didn't watch CSPAN as your successor took the oath. And you only watched the State of the Union because you might want a job from the President.
I began my cruelest month at the dedication of a new rail station. I had helped get federal funding for it. My opponent -- my conqueror -- was on the platform. I stood at the back of the crowd thinking: "Do they know I'm here?" Finally, an alderman gave a cursory note of thanks to about thirty people, including me. I was between the guy who laid the foundation, and the third-level Amtrak official. I joined the volunteer fire department in our little village. I began teaching a course on politics at Yale's new management school.
A week after I started there, I was walking down College Street and saw an old man coming towards me, limping with a cane. I could tell he recognized me. How nice, I thought. I stuck out my hand. He kept his on his cane.
"Aren't you?...Aren't you?"
"Toby Moffett," I said. "Nice to meet you."
"Weren't you the congressman? Weren't you the energy guy?"
"Yes, that's me."
"And now you're nuthin', right?"
The next day I told my class about it. They laughed, and I managed to crack a smile. One of my students handed me a copy of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem marked on the page where she writes how it felt like when she didn't make Phi Beta Kappa. "It marked the end of something...I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me."
Losing an election and going back home is not easy. You're out of Washington, but you're also out of the fast lane of politics and policy-making. Almost everything seems boring and, yes, very slow-moving, even slower than the Senate. A friend suggests that you apply for a college presidency that's open. You meet with the head-hunter. Sounds pretty good. Much higher pay. Much bigger staff. Youthful energy and intellectual exploration all around you. But what did you hate about your last job? You would have to beg people for money!
Or you return to D.C. and talk to another head-hunter about becoming president of a large trade association. Again, sounds great. Higher pay, bigger staff, but also something you got tired of in the Senate: dealing with angry association members (i.e. your new constituents).
Or you sign up with a lobbying firm. I returned to D.C. after nearly a decade, and went with my new partner to my first lobbying strategy meeting. We walked into the trade association offices and there was a very long table with the biggest group of lobbyists I had ever seen in one room. I felt the chill and saw the cold stares. "What is he doing here? What in the world could he do to help?" It didn't take long for me to discover that it's not former members who run this business but former staffers. And that they have rather low regard for us.
Why? They don't think we're strategic. They don't think we want to work hard. They don't think we're comfortable having coffee with mid-level staffers in the Longworth cafeteria. They also view us as sole practitioners, not good team players. And quite often, they're right. So you may find that you hate the work. And you -- and your clients -- may decide that you're just not good at it. Not many of us are.
So, perhaps you try something entirely new. For several years, I left that consulting world to be the VP of a Fortune 100 company. It was my first experience in a big company. I had grown up on an estate where my father worked. Even after four terms in Congress, I still knew nothing about "shareholder value" or the importance of "making the numbers." It was good for me, and it probably is a bigger factor than my congressional work in what I can do for Mayer Brown clients now.
What about those political juices? Should you keep them flowing? Can you do it without being a candidate yourself? I've been a volunteer in countless campaigns, big and small, presidential, House and -- yes -- Senate. You've given countless speeches to young people about how "citizenship" is more than just voting, obeying the law, and paying your taxes. So now, show them how it's done. Campaign for others. Join a protest. Mentor even one young person in need. You can be more of a hero than you ever were in the Senate. And, you don't have to engage in the demeaning fundraising game to do it.
I know, everyone's still calling you "senator," and that won't change. But far more important than what they call you is what you think of yourself. That's what I struggled with for a long time, even when I thought I was over all the pain and feelings of loss. Just getting to like myself again was a challenge.
Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.
It's still January. But it's time to start letting go of the senator, and reacquaint yourself with that person you really are.
Toby Moffett, a former member of Congress from Connecticut, is Senior Advisor at Mayer Brown, LLP
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