How Washington Players Use Email to Denote Power, Hierarchy, and Rank

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 24 2014 5:09 PM

D.C. Email Jiujitsu

How Washington political players use their email to denote power, hierarchy, and rank.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, left, and Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes and Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards. This scene would be more realistic if all the characters were partially ignoring each other to check their email.

Photo courtesy Netflix

In school did you ever cram for a Shakespeare exam by reading a lot in one sitting? It temporarily rewired your brain. When from your hand let slip the rhyme’d page, backward did run the lines in your hot brain. Verily.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This happened to me after watching the first eight episodes of House of Cards all at once. (I’m still in the first season; I also have a manual transmission). I felt the warp. I started thinking Congress was actually engaged in passing legislation. I walked around the house pursued by House Majority Whip Frank Underwood’s aphorisms. There are two kinds of SodaStream users in this world. … A real man can destroy his enemies just by hanging up his jacket. … Salt is for weaklings.

The show pays attention to the little details of Washington life—the different kinds of White House badges, the fetish for the president’s pens, and the anonymous power of the black SUV. So as a part of the fever, I am newly alive to the details of my banal life. In the middle of a phone interview with a political strategist in one of this year’s hot races, I suddenly felt like I was in the show. Not because we were having hike-up-your-pants-and-give-it-to-me-straight exchanges, but because a Washington behavior emerged that was such a part of the everyday commerce of this city, I was surprised it hadn’t already appeared in the show: the power dynamics of checking your email.

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In its most benign form, this power move simply comes across as a kind of aphasia. You’re doing an interview on the phone and suddenly your source starts to trail off. “The president’s health care plan isn’t just bad for people who … ” It might be that he’s stopping to think of something even more interesting to say. Then he repeats himself, “The president’s health care plan isn’t just bad … ” Sometimes he just stops talking altogether. Or he quickens the sentences. You recognize this as a guilt reflex. He’s trying to make up for the fact that he’s been checking his email and getting distracted by its contents while he has ostensibly been carrying on a conversation with you.

This is the electronic equivalent of the fellow who looks over your shoulder when you’re talking to him at an event, to see if someone more important has come into the room. Washingtonians, like competitive and striving people everywhere, are terrified that they are going to miss something crucial. What you are saying has to be as important as what your source imagines is the most important revelation in his inbox.

If a phone interview is scheduled for a half-hour, that doesn’t mean you’ll get a half-hour of a person’s attention. Maybe you’ll get 100 percent for part of the time and 44 percent for the rest. Or maybe you’ll just get an even 72 percent. They are doing a status calculation about you, where you fit in, and what damage they will suffer from offering a lower percentage of attention to you than something else. If the interview is on background and not for quotation, sources can get so distracted by their email you wonder whether they’re not also folding their laundry.

The less benign form of this behavior is when checking email is used as a shield. You’ll notice the aphasia kick in every time you ask a difficult question. They’re stalling for time or they’re hoping that the artificial interruption keeps you from pressing the point. It’s a sleight of hand. They’re trying to change an exchange of information into a vital interruption, like you’ve barged in during heart surgery.

The least tolerable version of this behavior is when someone engages in email abuse in person. One source once scattered his devices out on the table before an interview—a tactic that Jane Goodall would have recognized as a primitive marking exercise. Nothing was going to get between this fellow and his emails. (If a LinkedIn notification came in, it might throw the entire exchange into turmoil.) Another time, a White House press secretary started the interview by pretending to stretch in order to get a glance at his screen. Eventually his contortions became so extensive and protracted, I thought he’d conclude the interview by going into child’s pose.

With some sources you allow the aphasia because while they’re checking their email they’re also forgetting their rote answers, or they’re showing fear of a benign question in a way that can highlight what really worries them. Or, they’re useful and goodhearted, but like the rest of us they are enslaved by their email and a world where everyone expects your answer immediately. (Imagine working for this guy!)

In some cases, though, you can imagine what Frank Underwood would do if someone tried to hide behind their Very Important Emails. It is not physically possible to put an entire BlackBerry up someone’s nose, but that’s what makes fiction great.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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