“How (Not) To Get A Job At A Conservative Think-Tank”
by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
The Pacific Research Institute has existed in San Francisco since 1979, conceived as a right-wing intellectual bulwark against this city’s unrepentant liberalism. Their website claims that they have reached over one billion people — more than one out of every seven human beings alive touched by their articles, editorials, or videos. I discovered them through the twenty-first century’s greatest intellectual thoroughfare: Craiglist.
Craigslist does, of course, have a certain grassroots je ne sais quois theoretically aligned with libertarian principles, or at least the principles of libertarian sex offenders. I was, like so many young, progressive, out-of-work Bay Area locals, spending most of my days surfing the big C, pounding the electronic pavement for a job that might exceed all of my most unrealistic expectations about salary and workplace satisfaction. Instead, I encountered a post seeking a Development and Marketing Assistant at a downtown think-tank of a “rare” political stripe.
Never before has Craigslist felt so much like Match.com.
As soon as I followed the link to PRI’s website and read about how the president & CEO (a recovering Canadian) had just published a new book entitled “The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care: A Citizen’s Guide” — with a forward by Steve Forbes (Steve Forbes!) — I knew that I had to see this exotic creature; whatever it took, however much flattery and fakery and ideological Botox was necessary to get their attention, I would do. Opposites, it turns out, do indeed attract.
The next step was embarrassingly obvious to anyone who knows anything about Internet dating: I lied. I lied like a rug. I opened my resume and liposuctioned out the transparent idealism. Off went things like “volunteering for the Obama campaign” and “interning with an environmental nonprofit” and “completing a year of Americorps service with Habitat for Humanity”; they were government bloat, extra pounds to be shaved off and replaced by made-up CIA internships and a completely fictitious job with the National Association of Manufacturers (in their international trade group, where my assistant responsibilities had included drafting press releases on Chinese currency undervaluation). I had indeed graduated from Georgetown University, an institution which produces alumni of all political affiliations, but my fields of study — psychology and theater — were transparent indicators that I enjoyed the company of both science and homosexuals; I could never impress the conservatives with those creds. Government and economics made a much better come-on. I sent off this newly polished resume with fingers crossed. PRI emailed back the next day to set up a phone interview.
The night before our phone date, I prepared the best way I knew how: by drinking a bottle of cheap red wine and watching the entire run of The Dana Carvey Show (which, in its parodic coverage of the 1996 Republican primaries, was absolutely resplendent with Steve Forbes jokes) on Hulu. Seven hours after I passed out, my cell phone buzzed me awake and I found myself deep in invented conversation with a woman named Karen. Why had I come to San Francisco? she asked, suspicious by my very address. I said that I was originally from the city and had returned for family reasons, specifically, the ill health of my grandmother. (I apologize now to both of my grandmothers, neither of whom live in the area, for invoking them in my deception.) What, she asked with great excitement, did I do when I interned for the CIA? (Apparently loathing the principle of big government is not enough to cure one of finding top-secret federal espionage totally awesome.) I borrowed a story from somebody I knew who had done an actual internship with the CIA and said that my time in the Africa Division had been a bit disappointing; you see, there was some clerical error, and so by the time my security clearance came through the summer was almost over. Bureaucracy! We laughed together. What was the source of my political awakening, Karen wanted to know. Well, I told her, when I first came to Georgetown, the Central American Free Trade Agreement was being debated, and it was so inspiring to be able to discuss CAFTA with my classmates and with professors and to see its passage from inside the Beltway. I could practically hear Karen nodding through the phone. “That must have been incredible,” she said, solemnly. I asked her about PRI, its mission and its activities, and learned that they had four major focus areas — business and economics, health care, education, and the environment, “where we basically refute everything Al Gore says,” Karen told me, with more shared “laughter.” Could I come in on Monday for an in-person interview? Of course, I said, then inquired after the dress code. Business, she said; the hippie informality of business casual would not be tolerated.
As a writer, comedian, and adventuresome editor-at-large of the Internet’s most popular pancake-and-homelessness-based humor magazine my wardrobe consists entirely of pajamas, hoodies, and board shorts, appropriate for the business of comedy writing but little else. I purchased a khaki skirt and a blouse which my mother would approve of and managed to keep them stain-free for hours on end. I was late getting to their offices on Monday morning, but not so late that I didn’t notice the reception desk’s particular decor: the whole place was spartan, the walls bare, except for one ornately framed portrait of Margaret Thatcher.
As Mags stared me down from her gilt enclosure I almost lost my composure, but was redirected into Karen’s office just in time — she was brusque at my tardiness and I felt a transparent imposter, the Republichic of my khaki skirt insufficient compensation for my rather literary interpretation of punctuality. I assuaged her anger when I told her that my car had died over the weekend and I’d been forced to take public transportation, the inefficiencies of which I had severely misunderestimated. Bureaucracy! We laughed some more. Karen drove in every day from a far-flung suburb. She sipped coffee from a mug emblazoned with a quote by Milton Friedman and took me to meet the president and CEO, who loved America so much that she recently became a citizen. (Although she was still, like most of the good people I met at the conservative think tank, white.) Karen had me retell the CIA story as an example of my first-hand experience with the inefficiency of the public sector — bureaucracy! — and then we went into the conference room.
I met all of PRI’s support staff, everybody from their development and marketing teams, and they were all so impressed by my carefully tailored resume. I learned that PRI had a diverse range of opinions amongst its employees — everyone from libertarians to true conservatives — and a pimply young man who bore an uncanny resemblance to my nineteen-year-old cousin asked me what I wanted to do with my life. (He also reassured me that, in spite of the organization’s diversity, all of their debates remained “cordial.”) Many of their questions were perfectly mundane, standard interviewing fare; after all, however impressive my fake conservative credentials might have been, I still needed the skills to pay the bills, and there was one awkward moment when the marketing director asked about my experience with public speaking — a listed skill that had never before been questioned, because it makes sense in conjunction with a theater background; but cast adrift from that context I had no ready answer. If only I’d considered the matter when crafting my backstory with NAM!
I reassured them four or five times that I was really, genuinely on board with their “rare” ideology — it was hard to find people in this area who were, they said, so they needed a lot of reassurance — and then Karen took me back to her office for my coat and purse. Finally I was ready to go, and Karen walked me to the door. With Maggie T at my back, I had all the strength I needed.
Karen smiled, offered a handshake, said noncommittal complimentary things about how nice it was to meet me, to call if I had any questions, et cetera. I shook her hand and said I had just one more question before I left. This job came with full benefits, right?
She smiled, stiff and nervous, and said yes.
“Great,” I said, maintaining the polite enthusiasm of the interviewee. “Because I’ve been looking at the private, individual stuff, and there’s no way I can afford any of it. That stuff is expensive. Gotta love the free market, right?”
Karen blinked, without a ready response, and I turned and walked out the door, ready to return to the world of want ads and Casual Encounters.
I’m still waiting for them to call me back, although, as it is after so many first dates, I’m not holding my breath.