Wednesday afternoon, as his former colleagues in Congress considered a deal to avoid a national crisis, Wayne Gilchrest sat in his office in a place called Knocks Folly on Maryland's Eastern Shore and watched a fox run across a field.
That's not a bad way to spend an autumn afternoon — gazing out the window of an 18th-century house in Kent County, resting after a day spent preparing for the arrival of schoolchildren eager to plant trees or paddle a canoe on the Sassafras River.
Gilchrest, a moderate Republican who was put out to pasture by a very conservative one in the 2008 primary, teaches kids about the environment. They come on field trips from schools in Kent, Queen Anne's and Cecil counties to the nonprofit Sassafras Environmental Education Center. They learn about wetlands and farming, about wildlife and the importance of forests.
Gilchrest loves the work, though the kids take their toll.
"Some days," he says, "at the end of the day, I feel 150 years old."
Gilchrest is 67. He was a schoolteacher once upon a time, a Vietnam veteran, too. He went to Congress in 1990, representing the 1st District. He was in the House of Representatives for 18 years. He served through the government shutdown of the Clinton era, after a wave of conservatives won House seats and Newt Gingrich became speaker.
"It was a more congenial time," Gilchrest says of his first few years in the House. "We didn't have the bitterness you see today. I used to sit near Ron Paul, who was conservative on social issues but an expert on foreign policy; I loved to talk to him. And I sat near Walter Jones, who was a very conservative representative from North Carolina; he didn't like [George W.] Bush because he didn't think he was a good Christian. We had great conversations.
"There wasn't any animosity. It was Tom DeLay and Dick Armey who brought that to Washington."
Armey and DeLay, Texas Republicans, served consecutively as House majority leaders. They were in the vanguard of the Republican revolution of 1994.
"They talked about the Democrats being the enemy," says Gilchrest. "That's when that started."
He's talking about bitterness, animosity and politicians so ideologically driven that give-and-take seemed impossible. Rhetoric became harsher, views more strident, negative and personal.
By then, Gilchrest was accused of being a Republican in name only. "Moderate Republican" became an oxymoron.
Andy Harris, a Republican state senator well to the right of Gilchrest ideologically, was able to unseat him in 2008, the year of Barack Obama.
Since then, Gilchrest has watched Washington from across the Chesapeake Bay. For three years, he's been running the outdoor classes at Sassafras, teaching "everything from photosynthesis to phytoplankton to bald eagles."
It sounds like the great escape, but Gilchrest still pays attention to what happens on Capitol Hill.
"Today," he says, "no one seems to care about getting good information and making good public policy. That's what you're supposed to do in Congress — work with people, listen to them, find out the good information, evaluate the facts and pursue good policy. And you do it with integrity. You debate it. You talk. You negotiate.
"And the bottom line is, you believe in the republic. You believe in our system."
You don't try to tear it down by bringing it to the brink of disaster.
"After you debate, you vote, and the majority rules. ... This tea party is something different than what I say."
Certainly Gilchrest encountered extreme ideologues in his travel — particularly, he says, when he campaigned or attended town halls in northern Baltimore and Harford counties.
"I found a lot of people vicious and vindictive," he says, "about guns, God, gays, abortion, the war in Iraq. They weren't interested in information. They got attached to an ideology."
Gilchrest speaks there of the so-called culture wars. Now, with the tea party faction in the House, there's a different force at work.
"And I don't know what to make of it exactly," he says. "It's kind of hard to wrap your head around the tea party — they seem to be about taking the government down. They seem to be an offshoot of the conservative movement of Dick Armey, who has a bizarre obsession with almost every form of government assistance, including Legal Aid for the poor."
(After serving in Congress, Armey became the leader of a tea party-affiliated group.)
Gilchrest was not in Congress when the Affordable Care Act came up for a vote. That was three years ago, and yet the measure that has come to be known as Obamacare has been constantly attacked by the right — to the point of shutting down the government and risking default on the nation's debts.
"There's a bizarre mix of people opposed to [the ACA]," says Gilchrest. "But why? Where's the empathy? Where's the conscience? 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' Where's that? 'Love thy neighbor.' Where's that? I think we have a political system infiltrated by sociopaths."
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.