the receding back room

Today's selection -- from Washington by Meg Greenfield. The late journalist Meg Greenfield comments on the misconception that in Washington, DC, important decisions -- especially crisis decisions -- are made with all of the relevant people together in the same room:

"Any crisis setting including all the people who by rank are entitled to be there is practically never the one where actual decisions get made....

"I began learning this truth as long ago as my first paid job, in 1956, working at the Adlai Stevenson for President headquarters in New York City. I observed what a physicist might call the law of the infinitely receding back room. This holds that as decisions are secretly made in a small room someplace, there will be ever more pressure from people desperate to gain admittance. When, because of the pressure, the size of the meeting has been expanded, the original little group will recede to a further back room for its quiet, secret meetings, while continuing the larger one for show. But word of the new back room will get out. (There will always be one person too vain not to let it be known that he is part of the innermost group.) Then the process will be repeated and repeated.

"These days the handful of people responsible for any decision in Washington tend to keep trying to remove themselves to ever more inaccessible rooms. And although the undertaking of so much important governmental activity in private hideaways feeds the image of absolute power being wielded by some tiny, unaccountable elite, the reality may be more nearly the opposite ... For in receding to privacy, public people can cut themselves off from specialists who might help them avoid monumental mistakes. Yet they are irresistibly drawn to the private huddle ... [because] after you have been inside the innermost club, speaking to others in the language of highly classified information, you can't help becoming scornful of those not in the know. Since the outsiders inhabit an ignorant, lesser universe, they can't possibly be helpful. From the moment that thought takes hold, it is only a matter of time before someone is on a plane taking a cake to the Ayatollah Khomeini."



Meg Greenfield




Public Affairs Press


Copyright 1991 by Meg Greenfield


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