How to Work for the Enemy and Feel Just Fine

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer and co-founder of The Toast Mallory Ortberg tells us more about what it’s like to work at a famous conservative think tank.

I used to intern at the Hoover Institution AMA

— Mallory Ortberg (@mallelis) July 7, 2014

Mallory! So what happened here?

Oh! I forget how this came up, exactly, but yes, for one summer I was one of several interns at the Hoover Institution, which is a fairly conservative public policy think tank attached to Stanford University, and woe betide you if you refer to it as the Hoover Institute, as I did on my first day.

This was in the summer of 2010, I think; I had graduated the year previous from a Christian college in suburban Los Angeles with an English Literature degree and was profoundly unemployable. After about eight months of flailing in LA, where the only work I could find was picking up a few holiday stocking shifts at the BevMo, I moved north to live with my family and try to find a job.

And I did find jobs! I found several jobs, and I was so horrified at the prospect of ever being unemployed again that I took all of them. So I worked four mornings a week at the Hoover, reviewed The Vampire Diaries for a pop-culture site based in Washington, D.C., waited tables every afternoon until midnight, and twice a week drove up to Marin to copyedit at an ecologically minded women’s website. Which I guess sort of balanced out the Hoover work, politically.

The Hoover probably paid the best out of all of them. I think I earned between $12 and $15 an hour, which was more than I’d made at the BevMo, even. I’d ride my bike over to the campus every morning and run in through the Hoover Tower, which is quite lovely. My friends were all working at shoe stores and call centers and veterinary offices at the time, so they were mostly just excited I’d found a job. We’d all graduated at a really difficult time, you know, so there was a sense of victory whenever any of us found work or was able to afford an apartment on their own.

I just wanted a job. I wanted a reason to leave the house in the morning, and I wanted to learn how to be in an office, and I wanted to not email my resume to a thousand different Craigslist posters and bother my professors for letters of recommendation. I had no qualms about taking the job. I was grateful for it. I would have taken almost any job at that time.

Maybe I wouldn’t have taken a job actively fracking an orphanage, but I would have happily supervised the fracking from a building a few miles away, where I didn’t have to look at the orphans.

Mostly I delivered the morning edition of the Financial Times to various offices and worked a bit in the mailroom (where I ran into my high school prom date once), and updated mailing lists and answered calls from Haaretz at odd hours. But sometimes I’d get a last-minute email asking me to copyedit an op-ed that was about to run in the Wall Street Journal, and I was kind of amazed by the editorial latitude I was given.

“I can just . . . change whatever I want? Even though it’s going to run under _____’s name in the Wall Street Journal?”

“Just make it better.”

So I did! And, you know, this was right around when the Hoover published Ending Government Bailouts As We Know Them, so I did some very low-level publicity coordinating. There were at least two other interns at the time — both of whom were real Stanford students and very nicely dressed — who did a lot more of the substantive work. Everyone was very friendly and bookish and low-key, and I had a massive chip on my shoulder. I felt like an idiot sitting next to a bunch of Stanford and Ivy League grads when I’d gone to a really unimpressive school, and I felt like everyone around me had attended a seminar on success that I’d slept through and I’d never be able to catch up.

That was probably the toughest part for me, more than whatever political differences existed between me and most of the other employees — feeling like I was surrounded by success, by education, by money and authority and everything I wanted for my own life, but I couldn’t touch it.

Having gone through it, and knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

I would absolutely go through it again. I was never asked to do anything that, you know, compromised my high ideals, which were mostly a jumble of incoherent nonsense anyhow. It helped me save up enough money to get my own place and start a savings account, and because of that experience there I was able to get my first job in academic publishing.

I ran into Condoleeza Rice on the stairs once! Well, we didn’t run into each other so much as use the stairs at the same time. But I suppose that qualifies as significant.

These were really your establishment conservatives, you know, who prided themselves on being well-read and respectable and polite, so there wasn’t a lot of Tea Party rhetoric or anti-intellectualism or anything like that. There was, generally, a sense that President Obama was a big-government monster, and a lot of talk about Keynes that frankly I didn’t understand. But there was none of the dog-whistle racism that I rather expected to encounter. Very little talk about the, you know, culture wars. Mostly economics.

I think part of me was dimly HOPING to be tested, because it would have been sort of fun to think of myself as this stealth liberal, but that never happened. I mean, my boss was a former member of the Bush administration; obviously we had different politics, but there wasn’t really a sense of “we few, we merry few, we Bay Area Republicans” around the office. It was a lot like working with Jeopardy! contestants — friendly, mostly quiet nerds. (I also lost on Jeopardy! that same year. It was a year rich in life lessons).

I’m sure if I’d been more well-read or aware of the news at the time I’d have felt more conflicted, but I was plenty used to being around conservatives after going to school where I did. To be honest, I quite like knowing people who think about things quite differently from me — you know, living and working the way I do now, it’s not at all difficult to move in very politically uniform circles.

Also, the archives in the Hoover Tower were absolutely tremendous. That was very cool, getting to see some of the materials that were being housed there.

Lesson learned (if any)?

If you need a job and someone offers you a job, take the job. Working is better than not-working. Then, four years later, start your own media empire with someone you met on the Internet.

Just one more thing.

I probably regret more how often I wore my BevMo uniform even after I lost that job because I thought I looked compelling and butch in a green polo shirt and men’s cargo khaki shorts than I regret working at a hyper-conservative think tank. It took me years to get rid of those shorts.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.