My Real Life Experience as Olivia Pope

As a political staffer, I have always found shows like West Wing, House of Cards, and Scandal to be fascinating portrayals of our political system. Although the bulk of the content is fictional, there are kernels of truth here and there. I'm a big supporter of showing Americans what the political process is really like so I do it when I can.

Throughout my career, I've worked in Congress, political campaigns, and the nonprofit sector. I've worked with a variety of bosses — aspiring, real life Jed Bartlet, Francis Underwood, Mackenzie Allen types except they ended up being more like an emotionally unstable Randall Winston.

I don't do exactly what Olivia Pope does, but, like many political staffers, a lot of my job is providing information and advising the Boss to the best of my abilities. To give a better idea of what being a political strategist is like, I've compiled the "best parts" of conversations my fellow workers and I have had with bosses over the years during critical situations.

NOTE: this particular dialogue and boss are completely fictional. (I've also exaggerated details for comedic effect.)

ME: Boss, I really, really need to talk to you. It's important.

BOSS: [blank stare] Now?

ME: Yes. It's about Skynet.

BOSS: Sky what?

ME: Skynet. I wrote you a memo last week. I left it on your desk next to your computer.

BOSS: I never got it. You never gave it to me, Susie.

ME: I did. I swear I did.

BOSS: Well I haven't seen it.

ME: Here. Here it is. It was next to your computer.

BOSS: And is that where things go if you want me to read them?

ME: I, uh...I...

BOSS: How many times do I have to tell my staff this? If you want me to read something, you have to leave it near on the lower left-hand corner of my desk. That's where things are supposed to go as of noon today. If you put them anywhere else, I won't see them. Did you honestly think that if you put something next to my computer I'd see it?

ME: Of course. I'm sorry. It's just that's where Another Staffer told me to put your stuff.

BOSS: Do you work for Another Staffer, Karen?

ME: I...no. No, I don't. Could we...?

BOSS: Okay why is this so hard, Kevin? Now where do papers that I need to see go on my desk?

ME: The lower left-hand corner of your desk.

BOSS: Good. Now what were you saying, Andy?

ME: There's a major vote coming up on whether or not to attack Skynet.

BOSS: Never heard of it.

ME: It's a self-aware, artificial intelligence system originally developed for our military. The idea was computerize all military systems for a faster response time. But now Skynet is out of control. The system thinks we're going to destroy it, and it is using cyborgs as a method of—

My Real Life Experience as Olivia Pope

BOSS: Yes, yes, yes. I know what Skynet is. I don't know why you're telling me all of this. Skynet wants to exterminate the human race. Is this a pet project of yours?

ME: No. There's a vote coming up on whether or not to—

BOSS: Who owns Skynet?

ME: Cyberdyne Systems.

BOSS: And where on this memo does it have that information? It's not here.

ME: It's on page two.

BOSS: No it isn't. I don't see that information here at all, and that's precisely the information I need. You're not doing your job. Again.

ME: Here. It's on page two. [physically presents page two of the memo]

BOSS: Well why isn't it on page one? That's where it should be. I wouldn't have known it was there.

ME: I...I put the a rundown of that status quo on the top page. I put all background information right after that.

BOSS: Well that's a terrible way to write a memo. I mean...what if I never turned the page?

ME: I...I don't know. So the Skynet vote—

BOSS: Why are you in my office?

ME: I...what?

BOSS: I asked you a question, Katie. Why are you here in my office? Right now?

ME: Because...there's a threat of nuclear war and all of the human race could be obliterated?

BOSS: How does that relate to your job?

ME: That's...the issue I follow.

BOSS: Who told you to come in here and talk to me about this issue?

ME: Uh, no one.

BOSS: And how long have you worked for me, Jeremy?

ME: About seven years. Wh-why?

BOSS: It's just that you appear in my office sometimes, and I don't know why. You're just...here, wanting to talk to me. We might as well just get this over with. Just tell me what it is you want me to do, Patrick.

ME: There's a vote tonight at seven right after—

BOSS: Did you check my schedule? You always have to check my schedule before you come talk to me.

ME: Yes you don't have anything.

BOSS: Well I could have something that's not on my schedule. You need to talk to me before you check my schedule! How many times do I have to say this? So this judicial vote—

ME: Defense. It's a defense vote. Skynet.

BOSS: Why are we voting on this now, Jane?

ME: Because Skynet thinks that humanity is trying to destroy it. It's attempting to trigger war. We expect some sort of negative response from Skynet within 12 hours. As of 4:15 PM today, Skynet has taken control of itself away from human operators.

BOSS: 4:15 you said? Are you sure?

ME: Yes. Why?

BOSS: Because CNN is saying Skynet did that at 2:20 PM today. Not 4:15. Those are two different times.

ME: I got my information internally.

BOSS: So why is CNN different?

ME: I don't...I don't know?

BOSS: So you're intentionally telling me one thing when someone else has something different.

ME: No, I gave you the information I had from the source I rely on.

BOSS: But do you understand where I'm coming from, Mike? You say one time; CNN says another. And oh look! The New York Times says something else. What am I supposed to do with conflicting information that you haven't sorted out?

ME: Okay I will double check the exact time.

BOSS: Why did you wait to tell me until now about the vote, Greg?

ME: What do you mean? I told you as soon as I knew.

BOSS: How long was it between when you knew and your barging in here? All day?

ME: About two minutes.

BOSS: Don't talk back to me, Megan! I don't appreciate your attitude. Show me the original email with the time stamp.

ME: Here you go. The vote is in a few minutes. It's on whether or not the United States should attack Skynet with what resources we have left that aren't under Skynet control. Given what has happened already, Congress needs to act fast.

BOSS: Stop. Stop talking right now. Are you telling me how to vote?

ME: No, I—

BOSS: Because staff never tell me how to vote. How dare you? Who do you think you are, Steve?

ME: I'm not—

BOSS: I don't care what you were trying to do. Don't tell me what to do. And don't deny it either, Carolyn!

ME: I'm sorry...so do we need to discuss this?

BOSS: Of course we do. Do you really not understand how this office works, Henry? Now get out of my office and ask Other Staffer Who Doesn't Work on This Issue But I Can't Function Without to come in here.

[later]

BOSS: I'm headed off to votes. Just so you know, I'll be voting against attacking Skynet. The Other Staffer Who Doesn't Work on This Issue But I Can't Function Without is concerned we'd be putting Cyberdyne Systems employees out of work. He thinks the problem can be solved by sending eight inch floppy disks to Cyberdyne Systems that have a new operating system because that's what he did to his home computer when he got a virus last week.

ME: But it's not a—

BOSS: And there it is again. You keep telling me what to do. If I want to vote in favor of destroying all humanity, that's my right!

ME: Okay.

BOSS: And when I get back from votes, you and I are going to have a serious conversation about your work here. I'm so disappointed in you, especially during the Iran-Contra Affair. Everything you turned in to me was poorly written, Dennis.

ME: Iran-Contra Affair? I was in elementary school at that time.

BOSS: I don't care where you claim to be that time. You have been turning in substandard work to me for the past 30 years, and now you try and tell me you weren't old enough to work here?

ME: I'm sorry. I'll do my best.

BOSS: Thank you for your apology and taking personal responsibility. We'll talk when all this Skynet business has calmed down, Anna.

As I said, I've exaggerated a lot of these details, but I'm confident that the typical DC crisis communications consultant has to deal with palpable insecurity and paranoia. Such fears come out in the form of personal insults and accusations of power grabs. But you won't find these consultants talking about such behavior publicly because airing those details costs business and harms reputations.

One of the reasons I like watching Scandal and West Wing is how fast plot lines have to go because of commercial breaks and viewer attention spans. Time constraints are also why there's very little room for incompetent workers unless their presence serves as a plot point.

Doesn't everyone wish he could walk into his boss's office, give a rundown of a situation, and take action? Maybe that's why such details make for award-winning, addictive fiction.