“DC is just one big ladder. The higher you climb, the fewer people that can s**t on you.”
That’s Peter Peters, resident foreign policy expert at The Center, a Washington think tank that positions itself in the precise middle of the political spectrum, less out of principle than sheer political opportunism. Peters is a pundit who has used Washington’s essential commodity – information – to rise to the top of his profession. Now he’s on the verge of achieving that most coveted of DC positions: a top administration job.
The only thing that stands between Peters and his goal is a personality defect that attains monstrous proportions inside the Beltway: hubris. Peters believes that he’s an expert on all things global. You know the type. He pontificates at parties, at press conferences, on those TV talk shows on Sunday mornings. He seems to have an answer for every question. He is charming and knowledgeable, but you end up praying that he doesn’t somehow marry into your family.
At the beginning of my new play The Pundit, which will debut on July 13 at the Capital Fringe festival, hubris propels Peter Peters into pretending knowledge about a country that he can’t even locate on the map. As a result, he enters into a series of escalating power plays with an international terrorist. Peters is a savvy player and uses his store of information to good effect against his opponent. But can he outfox a truly determined adversary?
After a decade living and working in Washington, DC, I’ve long wanted to translate the drama inside the Beltway into drama on the stage. We live, after all, in an environment full of intrigue. But I’m less interested in political dramas – electioneering, legislating and lobbying, policymaking and protesting. I’m interested in how Washingtonians use information as a currency to buy and sell influence. Washington is one of the few places in the world where journalists, academics, pundits, and policymakers have created a powerful market for knowledge about the world at large.
It’s a world I know from the inside out because, shameful confession, I too am a pundit. For ten years I have appeared on TV, radio and print as a Korea expert. More recently, I’ve also talked with Tavis Smiley, Diane Rehm, Linda Wertheimer, and many others about global affairs. I’ve been interviewed about Afghanistan, the European financial crisis, U.S. counterterrorism policy, and many other topics far from my Korea expertise.
It wasn’t difficult, in other words, to imagine a scenario in which a pundit is encouraged to stray even farther into the realm of pure ignorance.
Pundits, like so many professional policymakers in Washington, don’t have to suffer the consequences of their pronouncements. They urge military intervention, but they are not the ones who fight the wars (nor, increasingly, do their children, either). The Pundit imagines a different scenario. It’s a comedy about Washington politics that gets darker and darker as the action unspools.
“The Caretaker is funny, up to a point,” Harold Pinter wrote about one of his most famous plays. “Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.” I couldn’t have described The Pundit any better.
After making its international debut at the Capital Fringe Festival, The Pundit will open at the New York Fringe Festival in August.
DC Theatre Scene, June 25, 2012