2000s Archive

Our Town

Originally Published July 2002
Washington, D.C., is America's city—filled with treasures and full of fun. Oh, yes, the government happens to be there, too.

On my first trip back to Washington, D.C., after September 11, I had lunch with friends at Billy Martin's Tavern, a venerable, narrow-boothed pub where I sometimes ate when I taught at Georgetown University during the 1980s. It's not the kind of place you'd pick to woo a lover or to be wooed by a lobbyist (the check would be too small), but few places were better for hearing stories about the attack and its aftermath. I learned things I hadn't registered before. How, after American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, thousands of people simply abandoned their cars on the street and walked home, afraid the Metro might be targeted next. How nightlife beehives like Dupont Circle remained spookily depopulated for months. And how, once anthrax hit the mail rooms, the city's level of tension ratcheted up to the breaking point.

"Everyone was afraid to say this at the time," said Tom, who was raised a Foreign Service brat, "but if just one more thing had happened, it would have been pure panic—a steady line of cars flooring it from here to West Virginia." He looked around at the sizable lunchtime crowd eating crab cakes and calmly chatting. "Now things are back to normal. If Washington was ever normal."

Washington has indeed bounced back. The Pentagon is being repaired with Indiana limestone, Reagan National Airport is once again open for business, scene makers are popping in for drinks at the new Ritz-Carlton—just like President Bartlet's staffers on The West Wing. For the first time since Marion Barry's election in 1978, which kicked off two decades of breathtaking incompetence on the part of the municipal government, the city has a mayor, bow-tied Anthony Williams, who understands that its citizens actually like having their garbage collected and 911 calls answered. Washington has long been plagued with a niggling undercurrent of self-pity ("We kill ourselves making this country work and you hate us"), but the War on Terror has given the capital a steely new sense of self-worth ("We aren't just bureaucrats anymore").

Like New York, Washington is a national treasure that you see differently once it has been wounded. You cherish it that little bit more. I didn't fully grasp this until one balmy afternoon I found myself walking down 17th Street. Passing Farragut Square, I sliced east to Pennsylvania Avenue. There before me, surrounded by a profusion of armed security guards but gleaming bright in the midday sun, stood the White House. Like millions of others, I'd laughed when its famous columns were blown sky-high in Independence Day. But those were simpler times. Today, I didn't feel corny in thinking how nice it was to see it still standing.

John F. Kennedy joked, a bit unfairly, that Washington was "a city of southern efficiency and northern charm." Living there in the 1980s, I often thought of it as an American version of Bonn, an unlikely capital graced with some old-fashioned delights—the cherry blossoms of spring, streets radiating like spokes from its traffic circles, lovely Victorian summerhouses in Cleveland Park, the Italianate glory of The Hay-Adams Hotel. It has always been an artificial construction, a backwater elevated to the summit of world power, an architectural extravaganza that was something of a precursor to Brasilia. Of course, the paradox of Washington is that the seat of the most dominant nation since imperial Rome should feel so much like an ordinary company town (albeit one that produces global power rather than cars or insurance policies). Once famed for duels, brilliant oratory, and iconic personalities—Andrew Jackson, "Honest Abe" Lincoln, FDR with his jaunty cigarette holder—the city increasingly prizes those who are willing to abide by the local rules of decorum, political and otherwise.

In fact, Washington is the conservative alter ego of Hollywood. Ever since Marilyn Monroe serenaded JFK in a dress so tight she had to be sewn into it, people have tirelessly traced the ties between the political capital and the movie capital. These links are sometimes literal—Ronald Reagan was an actor turned president—but the metaphorical connections are even more telling. Both D.C. and Hollywood are run by powerful elites who feel a strange mixture of fear and contempt toward the American heartland, that vast constituency whose whims determine their success at the box office or at the polls. But there is one striking difference: Movie stars are nearly always much shorter than you think, while Washington bigwigs are nearly always much taller (as if God had decided that the large shall rule the world and the small must perform to get his attention). Still, both places share the unhappy awareness that the media are always watching. Long gone is the era when a powerful congressman like Wilbur Mills would splash around in the Tidal Basin with stripper Fanne Foxe, the Argentine Firecracker. These days, Washington big shots conduct their affairs in private (unless they prove as unlucky as Gary Condit).

Each new administration sets a tone for the city. After the florid disarray of the Clinton White House, which everyone agrees was entertaining but exhausting, the city is slowly adjusting to the buttoned-down professionalism of George W. Bush. At first, locals feared the president would fill the city with rootin'-tootin' Texans ("There were a lot of cowboy boots at the inauguration," said a friend who attended), but the Bush house style has proved to be not cowboy but corporate. It prizes discretion, rectitude, self-discipline. And because so many top officials aren't what you'd call spring chickens, this may be the most sedate administration ever to take power.

Although the world associates Washington with pomp and spectacle—state dinners at the White House, award ceremonies at the Kennedy Center, rockets red-glaring over the Capitol on July Fourth—the city's real social life has traditionally taken place out of view, in private homes. It has always been famous for a culture of hostesses, from Dolley Madison to Perle Mesta to Katharine Graham, whose soirées brought the governing elite together with the chattering classes to gossip, float ideas "off the record," and sculpt the conventional wisdom. Such evenings offered northern efficiency and southern charm.

Graham's name came up one night over dinner with a friend, who said, "It used to be that everyone would go out to hear things you couldn't hear on the news. That no longer happens. Now, everyone in Washington reads the inside stuff on the Internet, just like everybody else."

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