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A political fact: 'Hill' staffers lack perspective

Watching ``The Hill," a new reality series on the Sundance Channel, makes you feel some pity for members of Congress. There are serious issues to consider, to be sure, but much of daily life seems devoted to capitalizing on news cycles and preparing for appearances on cable TV talk shows.

Such is reality, we're told, for Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat with a safe district and no fear of TV exposure. (He was a game interviewee recently on ``The Colbert Report.") ``The Hill," which premieres tonight at 9, is mainly a look at his employees, who are earnest, ambitious, and deeply committed to the political hamster wheel.

They're not as fun to watch, alas, as some of their more vapid TV counterparts. The insular nature of D.C. culture -- and the lack of natural light in Congressional hallways -- seems to impose monotony. And these folks are so obsessed with politics that it overtakes their personal lives.

Chief of Staff Eric Johnson, a Republican-wunderkind-turned-out-of-the-closet-gay-Democrat, holds a viewing party for a Bush-Kerry debate; the guests cheer as if they're watching a WWE wrestling match. Press secretary Lale (pro nounced ``Lolly") Mamaux and legislative aide Haile Soifer both break up with Republican boyfriends due to irreconcilable worldviews. Social lives are limited, since the job demands long hours. Office battles largely center around the wording of press releases. (And why? I'd be hard-pressed to find a political reporter who has ever really read one top-to-bottom.)

There's nothing wrong with political passion -- the youth of America could surely use more of it -- but the result is a depressing way of life; every day, a new chance to grasp for something negative to say. We see this all through the lens of old political events: John Roberts gets nominated for a US Supreme Court seat, and the arms race of rhetoric gets re-upped. ``Let's call him a partisan," Johnson declares at one point. ``He's an ultra-partisan hack."

Against a Republican juggernaut, their efforts feel a bit like flinging rubber bands. Against the backdrop of Democratic infighting, Wexler doesn't fare much better. When he takes it upon himself to offer a Social Security plan, at a time when his party leadership hasn't offered one, the powers that be find a way to get back at him. Or so his staff believes.

They're the ones who seem most moved by the daily ups and downs; with his salt-and-pepper hair and laid-back demeanor, Wexler looks at times like a tired camp counselor. He clearly takes his staff's advice, but sometimes holds them back when their partisan fervor gets the best of them.

``I don't mean to be difficult, but we can't just manufacture criticism," he says at one point, when presented with a pitch for yet another press release.

``We can't?" Mamaux says, and she's not entirely kidding.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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