in Politics

Please Hold

23 years ago this month, I was a newly-married young goofball living in the District of Columbia who had just started work as in intern in the office of Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. I adored Senator Simpson – and still do. I have often said that if he were running against my own father, I’d have a hard time making a choice between the two. (Which, really, isn’t true. I’d vote for Dad. But Al Simpson is a close second!)

One of the glamorous jobs of a Senate intern is answering the phones in the front office. For some reason, lots of people would call in complaining about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which they were convinced was going to have the UN take away their children and raise them in some godless socialist utopia. There was some radio host in Wyoming who would bring this up, and, like clockwork, the phones would start to ring every time he told his listeners to “call your congressman and tell them how you feel.” (Just for fun, I once stepped out to the payphone in the hallway and called the office to tell them, in a disguised voice, that I supported the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and could Senator Simpson please send someone round to pick up my kids that afternoon.)

I was given very specific instructions as to how to handle phone calls. Before they launched into whatever tirade they had prepared, I was to ask them their name and where they were calling from. I had a form next to the phone where I wrote down the details of their complaint or question, and if a response was necessary, I’d ask them for their contact information so the office could mail them a reply.

Of course, I was only supposed to write all this down if the person was calling from Wyoming and was one of Al’s constituents. (Sen. Simpson wanted everyone to call him Al, even us lowly interns. This was a bit informal for my father’s staffers, who referred to Dad as “the Senator” and were definitely not on a first name basis.)

“What if they’re calling from, say, Florida?” I asked.

“Don’t write anything down. If it’s not busy, you can listen to them politely until they get whatever it is off their chest,” my supervisor said.

“What if it is busy?”

“Then you say, ‘Please hold,’ and you put them on hold and leave them there until they hang up.”

That struck me as rather cruel, but the intern coordinator shrugged her shoulders. “If they can’t vote for Al,” she said, “then he’s not accountable to them, and he doesn’t care what they think.”

I had my first phone skirmish after Al had been on the floor of the Senate giving a speech about entitlement reform. Al was quite a colorful character, and he had a penchant for referring to the “greedy geezers” of the AARP who opposed any changes to Social Security. Needless to say, “greedy geezers” are the only people watching C-SPAN2 at any given moment, and all of them have plenty of time on their hands to make an angry call to a senator they don’t like.

The first call went something like this.

“Hello, is this Senator Simpson’s office?”

“It is, yes. How can I help you?”

“Well, you can tell your boss that if he’s going to start calling people ‘greedy geezers,’ then he ought to know that this World War II veteran doesn’t take kindly to some rich, out-of-touch Washington hack messing around with my Social Security. And furthermore -”

“I’m sorry,” I said, interrupting, “but where are you calling from?”

“I’m calling from Florida, and I…”

“Please hold,” I said, interrupting again.

I pressed a button, and just like that, the angry voice became one of a series of blinking red lights on my phone console.

(Disclaimer: While this story is representative of what actually happened, it should not be interpreted as a verbatim transcript of the conversation and would not hold up as such in any court of law. With regard to precise words or locales represented, it may contain alternative facts.)

After the rush was over, my fellow interns and I watched the series of blinking red lights drop off one by one after all the greedy geezers finally lost patience or found something better to watch on television.

I was working on the Hill when Newt Gingrich had just become the first Republican House Speaker in 40 years, and lots of people called asking for the number to his office so they could give him a piece of their mind. I was instructed to give them the number for the Capitol operator. I was assured by my supervisor that if they weren’t from Georgia, or even if they were from Georgia but not from Newt’s district, they, too, would become nothing more than blinking red lights.

I tell you this story because I have seen a number of friends on Facebook posting calls to arms to write or call Paul Ryan, or Elizabeth Warren, or Ted Cruz, or whoever else to get them to oppose all or part of the Trump agenda, and I think you should be warned in advance that whether it’s Ryan, Warren, or Cruz or anyone else in Congress, you’re wasting your time if you’re not one of their constituents.

It is true, for instance, that Paul Ryan is Speaker of the House, and that his role as such has an impact on the nation at large. But the nation doesn’t vote for the Speaker; the House does. The only people who actually vote for Paul Ryan live in a congressional district in Wisconsin, and those are the only people Speaker Ryan has to please in order to keep his House seat.

If you are not one of those people and you call his office, they may listen politely if it’s not busy, but they aren’t going to make any note of what you say. If you write him a letter, that letter will be discarded, unopened. Your email will be deleted, unanswered and unread. I was answering phones long before email was a big deal and social media was even a fantasy, but I’m confident that innovations in technology haven’t changed the meaning of “please hold.”


Alternative facts can feel like justice
A Perfect Object

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  1. Having worked as an administrative assistant myself for many years, I can tell you that you’re absolutely correct with regards to phone calls and being put on hold. Particularly with regards to calls of the belligerent complaint variety. Although sometimes we would use the hold just to let the person cool off for a period of time before answering it, sometimes I’d have to put a person on hold multiple times throughout a conversation until they finally calmed down. Heck sometimes we wouldn’t necessarily put a person on hold, but would just hold the phone receiver away from our ear until we heard the person come to a stop, and then say, “okay, thank you for letting us know,” without having any idea what it was they were screaming about.

    Part of the problem is that people are calling 10 dollar an hour workers who A. don’t really care what your problem is, and B. don’t have any power to resolve your problem or change policy even if they did care.

    I do think however that there is something to be said for writing a thoughtful letter to your representative. Not a screaming letter in all caps written in red crayon. But a calm, reasonable, thoughtful, letter full of rational points. I have family members who have received hand written responses from public servants including Presidents. Some of them have been framed.

    It’s one of the reasons why for a number of years now, I have only discussed politics through the written word. I never discuss politics verbally anymore.

    This is partly because only literate people are worth discussing politics with. But mainly because far too many times, particularly with the Baby Boomers and the Snowflake Generation, calm rational discussion and debate is simply not a possibility. When it is attempted, the other person doesn’t stop and listen to what you have to say. Rather they ignore you, look up at the ceiling or down at the floor, and are really only waiting for you to pause so they can scream whatever lecture they have in their heads at you. Or they talk over you and stupidly think that the loudest most interruptive person wins the debate.

    With the written word however, they are forced to consider opposition. Now, that doesn’t stop them from typing out words they don’t understand in pre-fabricated hyperbolic modules. But they can’t talk over you, even if they write in all caps.

    • Has it occurred to you that it might just be because you’re repeating arguments we’ve heard a million times? You can’t be a millenial in America without getting the same condescending rant about “reckless spending” every time you talk to someone who voted for a 3000- mile wall, and who thinks it was okay for Bush to put two wars on a credit card.

  2. This also applies to petitions. I’ve had several people ask me to sign recall positions for politicians that are in other states. When I tell them I can’t because I am not a registered voter in say Maryland so my signature doesn’t count and is actually creating unnecessary work for the person that has to verify them, they give me a blank look.

  3. I supposed one comforting thing about my State is that it’s consistently red, and in a perpetual state of almost- but- not- quite swing: I constantly have elected officials to complain to facing races they’re somewhat worried about.

    Question: what if a group of angry people started a campaign of calling, being put on hold, hanging up, and calling again just to make it harder cor constituents to get through?