Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The Devil Wears Wingtips: Kathleen Rooney on D.C. and ‘O! Democracy!’

The DePaul prof, a former staffer in Dick Durbin’s Chicago office, on her new novel, how to succeed in politics, and why idealists should avoid it.

Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

NOTE: A piece of this interview appears in the April issue of Chicago.

As Kathleen Rooney, who worked in Sen. Dick Durbin’s Chicago office from 2006-2010, might write, “Once there was a pretty girl who went to work for a prominent senator, fielded wanted advances from the Senator’s state director, and wrote an essay in her published collection, For You, for You I am Trilling These Songs about the mutual flirtation with this man who was her boss and twice her age and should have know better.” 

When Trilling was published four years ago, Durbin’s DC spokesman saw a review of the book, read it, and Rooney was promptly fired. Her boss, to whom Rooney gave the fictional title chief of staff, was not fired. 

Rooney went on to teach creative writing at DePaul and, next month, will publish her first novel, O Democracy!, an entertaining and funny fictional retelling of the Durbin-office experience.  (She has also written several collections of poetry, nonfiction, including Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object—which includes her own experiences working as an artist’s model—and Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America).

I spoke with Rooney, 33, from her office at DePaul. (She answered a few additional questions via email several days later.) She grew up in suburban Woodridge and attended Downers Grove North before getting her degree in 2002 from George Washington University in DC.  She and her writer husband, who, like the fictional husband in the novel has a day job working in municipal government in a northwest suburb, live in Edgewater.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

Did your going to college in DC signal an interest in politics?

Yes, from an early age. I volunteered on democratic campaigns in DuPage County; definition of fruitless. 

You don’t use anyone’s real name in O Democracy; instead you describe some characters only by their titles; so this is fiction, right?

I approached the project as fiction and encourage readers to do the same…. I use the art and craft of fiction to make the story more interesting than real life, to get at the bigger truth of democracy and its institutions. I don’t want people to read this novel just as a who’s-who game.

One of the things that the book tries to address is how being an optimist is one of the saddest things. People come to work… for elected officials because they have the impulse to do so out of a sense of hope. You see how the sausage really gets made. 

Can you describe one shocking instance in the book that actually did happen while you were working for Durbin?

The British writer V.S. Pritchett said, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living,” and I tried to keep that in mind as I moved from real life to its more colorful and sensibly structured fictional depiction.

In the novel, the “Kathleen” character is named “Colleen” and she’s a photographer and gets in trouble with her bosses for snapping photos for her own portfolio on the government’s dime. Did the Durbin crew know you were a writer and that you did some writing during work hours?

Everybody in the Chicago office knew I was a writer. The Senator knew; the staff knew. Durbin made a point of it: “Here’s our staff poet.” I felt supported by the staff. When I went on a 20-city tour [for Live Nude Girl], I was gone for two straight months. “Go on tour to promote your writing and we’ll hold your job for you.”

But then you got in trouble when your book of essays, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, was published and included one on your relationship with the district director. There was a shift from supporting you as a writer to “You’re fired.”

In O, Democracy! I write that congressional offices are dinosaurs. There’s the brain in the head and the brain in the butt. The district office [which includes the Chicago office] is [the butt]. It’s a necessary adjunct but not the main control center.

Chicago was 100 percent supportive and aware of my career as a writer. DC, because they don’t pay attention to the district, had no idea; saw a review of my book of essays in the Washington Post and the DC office was shocked that I was a writer.

Did you talk to other higher-ups in the office about the state director? [In the novel Rooney consistently calls the state director the COS, and I’ve retained her wording.]

The response was if the COS is being inappropriate it doesn’t matter because you’re just an underling.

One of the things I was interested in is this idea of masculine charm. These charismatic assholes manage to be simultaneously jerks and also weirdly magnetic. That serves to let them succeed in life and careers and get away with stuff that because of their personal qualities becomes permissible…. So many male politicians seem to get away with so much for so long, weirdly charming. JFK [is] hard to fully hate, and Bill Clinton… could never quite be totally mad at him.

In the run-up to the publication of this novel, have you, your agent, your editor heard from the Durbin camp?

No.

What kind of reaction do you expect?

No expectations. If people read the novel knowing some of the history of how I got fired… they’ll see it’s not a book with a vendetta, not a hatchet job.

Do you retain any friendships with your colleagues in Durbin’s Chicago office?

What’s interesting is the people who continue to talk to me were interns and underlings, at the same low level that I was. All the people I still associate with have gone on to other things.

For many others, it was not politically expedient to hang out with people who had angered their bosses. They never spoke to me again.

I often say that I love writing about politics because you can’t make this stuff up—Anthony Weiner, for example, just think of the name and the crotch photos he mistakenly tweeted.

It is hard to top the real thing. But in fiction I can give coherency, beginning, middle and end, episodes and scenes. It is hard to write satire when better than ridiculous stuff happens all the time. So much of what happens in politics and government is absurd.

Would you ever want to work again in a politician’s office?

I would. I don’t know if there are people who would have me…. As flawed as politics and government is, government does serve as a barrier to pure capitalism.

Which Democrat are you supporting for the presidential nomination in 2016?

I wouldn’t say that I’m a wide-eyed admirer of Hillary Clinton, but I would love to see a female president; crazy we haven’t had one.  So many other countries have.

Would you like to see Elizabeth Warren as the nominee?

Oh my gosh, yes. She is much more to the left than Hillary and comes without Hillary’s baggage. I like the way she’s a consumer advocate, financially savvy, doesn’t just talk about preserving the middle class.

In the novel, you portray staffers working away on their own stuff, whether studying for the bar or whatever. You also write that it is “infuriating that the majority of [Colleen’s] male coworkers practically make a point of not working as hard as she does.” So the taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth?

There is a colossal amount of time wasted in a senator’s office. But it’s not just in government. It’s the whole idea of working in an office, looking busy for eight hours. Hurry up and wait. Prisoner to this system; sitting in your cube.

What do you miss about your job in Durbin’s office?

I miss the sense of camaraderie, being part of a team that had a shared mission.

Would you recommend a career in politics to young people?

Yes and no. I would not recommend that idealistic people who want to change the world for the better enter politics. You can change things, but not through politics. If you’re someone who treats the job like a video game, advance the levels, get points and curry favor and become more powerful; if that’s what you want, then you’ll do well.

Are any of your students interested in politics?

Almost none.

You set your novel in 2008 when the African American character you call “the junior senator from Illinois” is running for president and the novel ends with his victory rally in Grant Park. Are you disappointed in Obama’s performance?

I voted for him twice. I’m glad he won both times, no regrets. I don’t want to say disappointed, but politics always disappoints me. I keep coming back to the inevitable gap between things that can be and things as they are.

Do you still do nude modeling?

No. I have a few friends who are professional painters. I’ll pose if it’s for a specific project. But it’s not my primary source of income.

Share

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Note: To serve its readers better, Chicago has migrated its comments to Disqus, a popular commenting platform. Please feel free to contact us with any feedback.