Shawn Brimley's Town
Washington, D.C., can be an easy city to mock or resent—but it’s full of workers who’ve chosen to serve something larger than themselves.
We live in an era in which writers lament the end of expertise as a virtue and the president of the United States proudly eschews the nuances and details of his own policies, preferring to spend his days watching television. Nonetheless, elsewhere in the federal government each day, committed men and women from the three branches of government study, formulate, and execute public policy to serve a nation of 325 million people. Many of these men and women have the skills, intelligence, and education to thrive in private-sector enterprises—usually in more lucrative fields—yet instead commit to serving the nation’s greater good.
My friend Shawn Brimley was one of them.
Brimley wasn’t even born American—he was raised in Canada—yet he dedicated his professional life to our nation’s defense and to its men and women in uniform.
He served in the Obama administration in a variety of different national security roles, culminating in the Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council. Brimley was a policy wonk’s idea of a policy wonk who spent the first year of the administration writing a good portion of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review—a document which means little to people outside the Beltway but which is one of the most consequential documents for U.S. defense policy. After leaving the Obama administration in 2012, he returned to Center for a New American Security, a D.C. think tank, as its director of studies.
Brimley and I somehow never overlapped professionally in either government or at CNAS (where I spent three years), yet I knew our mutual friends and peers regarded him there as a warm and generous colleague. About a month ago, Shawn let us know that he had been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer—an incongruous diagnosis, given his age and fitness. He fought very hard, but a week ago, Shawn’s health took a turn for the worse, and he was given weeks, not months, to live. Those weeks turned out to be mere days. He died on Tuesday.
Shawn had better friends than me, and some of those friends happen to also be better writers than me, so I will let them properly eulogize such a kind and decent man. But I want to say something about a group of men and women that Shawn represented—the cadre of policy professionals that serve their country each day.
Outside of the government, Washington, D.C., is unique among the world’s leading capitals for its intellectual policy ferment: the multitude of think tanks and other research institutes that dot the greater metropolitan area—each housing past and future policy officials researching and reflecting on policy and government—is unmatched elsewhere in the world. London, Berlin, and Beijing have nothing like it, and Shawn was both mentored by this ecosystem and went on to serve as the mentor to countless others.
Most of these people—the people who sit in the think tanks and research centers, the people who work in the departments and agencies, the people who toil away on congressional committees—are, incredibly, fundamentally decent people. They are Americans (mostly) who by and large have passed up opportunities for greater material wealth in order to serve something bigger than themselves, and most of them do so with a collegiality and commitment to teamwork that would be the envy of most Fortune 500 corporations.
Nonetheless, too many Americans, suspicious of government and frustrated by the direction of politics, look down on the men and women who earn their living either in the federal government or in not-for-profit organizations that work adjacent to it. And the professional classes of Washington D.C., should not be above reproach: They failed, for example, to avert our entry into Iraq in 2003, they failed to address the root causes of the financial crisis of 2008, and they have failed to communicate the importance of pragmatic policies to an American public that grows increasingly flirtatious with populism from both the left and the right.
But any American who hates the people who toil in the Beltway never met Shawn Brimley. They never saw his earnestness, his intelligence, his corny sense of humor, or his willingness to mentor everyone from the unpaid interns on Capitol Hill to the senior government officials who frequently turned to him for his sage advice.
And Brimley, for all his exceptional kindness and for all his exceptional intelligence, wasn’t that different from all of those people he mentored. Because they wanted to be—they tried so hard to be—like him. You can spin around in Metro Center during rush hour, throw a rock, and hit four Shawn Brimleys. This town—This Town—is full of them.
Brimley’s greatest professional legacy—the reason he will long be remembered with fondness by every life that he touched—will be the time he spent teaching, training, and mentoring all of the people who shared his values and his earnestness and who must now continue his life’s work.