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Many say Washington is a swamp. The reality is more complex

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Washington, D.C., is often viewed with a critical eye. Politicians run against Washington insiders. They call the city a swamp. But for those who work and live here, it is a place where good can be done. NPR's Brian Naylor has this report on the idealists who come to the nation's capital.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: From its very beginnings, writer and journalist Timothy Noah says Washington has always been looked down upon and scorned.

TIMOTHY NOAH: Washington has always been thought of as a swamp. It was thought of as a swamp. Even before it was built, Thomas Tredwell, an anti-federalist New York state senator, called it a political hive where all the drones in the society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land. And they hadn't even built the place yet.

NAYLOR: Noah's article in the current New Republic is entitled "Washington Is Not a Swamp." Yes, there are some hoping to enrich themselves with federal contracts and corruptly influence government policy. But he says...

NOAH: There's this other Washington which is seldom discussed. And it's the Washington that those of us who live here encounter on a daily basis.

NAYLOR: For instance, he says it was in this other Washington, right outside the district line, at the National Institutes of Health where the blueprint for the COVID-19 vaccine was developed by researchers working for the government. Federal agencies do everything from overseeing more than 400 national parks to processing tax returns. One of those agencies is a part of Customs and Border Protection that works to stop the import of goods produced by forced labor in countries like China. It's led by Eric Choy.

ERIC CHOY: Forced labor is a global problem around the world. I mean, there's, you know, 25 million people estimated that suffer under conditions of forced labor.

NAYLOR: Choy joined the CBP after spending time in the military. Like many in government, he says he's drawn to the work by a sense of mission.

CHOY: It's those large, lofty missions like the, with honor, integrity, we'll safeguard the American people, our homeland and our values are those things that have always appealed to me to be, you know, of service and of service to something larger and greater than myself.

NAYLOR: Choy grew up in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, in a community with civil servants, members of the military and congressional staffers. He doesn't see Washington as a swamp.

CHOY: Whether it's to, you know, to improve the lives of folks and neighborhoods or housing or the climate and the environment, regardless of where you may sit as far as position, everyone seems to come here to work these broader issues that are important for us as a nation, as a people and our position globally around the world.

NAYLOR: Christy Delafield shares that view. She came to Washington in 2004 and now works for a nonprofit aid group that's applying science to human development challenges such as HIV, AIDS and COVID-19.

CHRISTY DELAFIELD: I saw D.C. as a place where decisions were being made and a place where people's lives were being affected. And I could go and be a part of helping make these systems. Whether it's the global health system, whether it's financial systems, whether it's humanitarian aid systems, how do we make that work as well as it can?

NAYLOR: This sense of purpose extends to those who work in Congress, too. Ryan O'Toole is a congressional staffer who came to Washington from Ohio, hoping to bring this small town values of his community to the capitol. On January 6 last year, O'Toole was in the House chamber with his boss, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, as the building was overrun by a pro-Trump mob.

RYAN O'TOOLE: Don't like the characterization that it's a swamp, because this is what I see every day. It's kind of these unsung heroes, like the Senate staffers for example, who deliver the Electoral College ballot box to safety, you know. But for them, we would have had a major constitutional crisis, further than what we had. And you know, I think examples like that exist across our government. And that certainly flies in the face of the characterization that it's a swamp.

NAYLOR: Washington is not a swamp, not even literally. It's a community, big and diverse. Some are trying to get rich and famous. Many more say they're just trying to do some good. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Brian Naylor is retiring from the network after nearly 40 years. He's been a familiar voice on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He reported on several administrations, Congress and the federal government as part of our Washington desk. Those of us who have had the privilege of calling him a colleague will miss his unflappability and humor. Good luck, Brian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.