Living in Washington, D.C.
Even in an inaugural month, the
deeper currents of our nation's capital are barely disturbed. So
what is this city like? High school, actually.
The writer John Updike once described where I live,
Washington, D.C., as a "World's Fair built to last." Referring
to its designed to impress architecture. For me, the city is a little
different; often it reminds me of high school. There are cliques,
cheerleaders, popularity contests, class favorites, and hayrides.
There are themes to compose, oral reports to deliver, true-or-false
exams to sweat, bullies to avoid. There are exhilarating triumphs
and crushing failures.
Homesickness is mostly non-existent here; for like
high school, Washington is considered more an extension of home
than a separate place. People who come here from Texas and New York,
Pakistan and Paris, and anywhere and everywhere else are not required
to shed their sense of where they came from. Unlike the residents
of cities where pasts are dropped or refitted as soon as possible,
Washingtonians agitate for theirs, keep them raw and vibrant. The
citizenry are even encouraged to retain regional and other differences
by joining state and national societies, and by keeping back-home
license plates and accents, as well as eating habits.
All this openness makes for a nice welcoming party.
People born in Washington are Washingtonians but so are those born
everywhere else; this includes former mayor, Marion Berry, a Mississippian.
All you have to do to be a Washingtonian is to be here, and it doesn't
matter when you arrived. You are particularly welcome, of course,
if you don't come in January of an odd-numbered year, as a fresh
member of Congress or as a high-ranking member of a new administration.
Election results are for us what seasons are for trees. They keep
their landscape -for us, the social, political, and intellectual
landscape -changing in a natural rhythm.
This does not mean you can expect a warm fire in all
hearths. As this tends to be an upwardly mobile high school, full
of honor students and high achievers, everyone works hard. We don't
have enough time for each other. Agendas get too full to allow us
to do much for purely social reasons. This is why we created the
working party, where almost everything but pure socializing takes
place -especially when the function is on a weeknight.
Dinner parties on weeknights are always over by 11
P.M. Long, liquid lunches are not in style for those who work in
the government at any level during any administration, and as a
consequence, they aren't for most of the rest of us either. Drinking
cocktails at cocktail parties is almost mostly frowned upon.
We don't lack for recreation, however. The Washington
Redskins football team offers the most obvious and best-known proof.
It is true that, with the exception of a few die-hard émigrés
from Dallas, the one thing most newcomers do first is shed loyalty
to all other football teams. (Again, just like high school.) In
fact, during one election time a fews years ago, possibly the city's
only job-holder whose status was assured was Doug Williams, the
Redskins' quarterback. As Mark Schramm points out a few pages ahead,
the Redskins not only serve as a distraction, but provide a sense
of community -something otherwise lacking in this politically fractious
The Washington Post, still our major newspaper, becomes
another haven. We quote it, disparage it, brag on it, curse it,
but we all read it. We use it to initiate conversations all over
the city, with our next door neighbor or an attractive person at
a singles bar.
As a concern with national politics haunts most of
us, our institutionalized dispensers of information -the media -becomes
as uncertain as the rest of us when it comes to defining what is
of local interest. The distinction between what is purely local
and what is national gets very blurred. Does local news include
how many funerals of heads of state the vice-president went to last
Scandals make front-page news, and so do Redskin wins
and snowstorms. Other local stories seldom concern us, anyway. What
we're really interested in -and what the Post reflects -are the
local decisions that involve national concerns. We feel we must
know which senator said what to whom about this or that bill. Stories
involving midlevel administrators and congressional bills come up
for discussion in drug stores as well as dinner parties.
Even when we're most caught up in our daily chores,
the nation's business is always just around the next corner. We
arrived late at the train station because we couldn't get around
the Capitol until the President finished his address to Congress.
Driving downtown to take in an art exhibit, we're caught in a demonstration.
At any moment, Washingtonians in their cars might spend a few minutes
waiting for a presidential or vice-presidential motorcade to pass.
And even if a Washingtonian is not directly or indirectly
involved in the highest levels of government, he or she knows someone
who is. The clerk at the checkout counter, the gas station attendant,
the waiter, a neighbor, a kindergartner, all come in regular contact
with newsmakers and their families. No wonder that gossip -commonly
referred to as personality stories, are opposed to issue stories
-get such prominent play in the press.
It is safe to say that Washington is a town of news
junkies, that information is our most valuable commodity. The city
squeaks and bangs along, trading its knowledge or - more likely
- what is passing for knowledge that day. This has always been so,
but as the quest for intelligence picks up in pace and intensity,
journalism has become the hottest ticket in town. There are more
journalists here than anywhere else, it seems. They range from one-person
newspaper bureaus with no visibility or clout to household name
types. Journalists are part of the permanent residency because Washington
is considered the top of the journalism ladder. Nobody much leaves
unless they're fired or they retire. And, fortunately for most,
they do not have to submit themselves to the electorate.
While this place has a preponderance of journalists
and politicians, it also has, on another level, a preponderance
of blacks, many of whom take little part in the aspect's of the
city's life that I've been talking about. Washington is a racially
separated city. For the most part, the division seems to have much
less to do with race than with class. A recent study merely confirmed
the disturbing fact we've known all along: The District of Columbia
consists mostly of rich white people and poor black people.
The white middle class and its black counter part
are to be found in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, where they
mostly live separate from each other, as they do in the inner city.
Whites work hard at getting from the distant suburbs to a close-in
gentrified neighborhood in the District, while black aim toward
moving out of the District into the suburbs.
If Washington truly is a high school, it tends to
be one from which no one wants to graduate. As Roger Mudd has said,
"One of politics' sweet ironies is that the newly elected come
to Washington promising to govern without it, but in the end they
are subsumed by it, dependent on it, identified with it, and probably
retiring in it."
When politics or journalism pales, we may move on
to other endeavors: a public relations firm or consulting firm,
a lobbying group, the arts community, even the up and coming movie
industry. Whatever, we stay. We are addicted to the patois and rhythms
of the place. We would miss the screaming, speeding motorcades of
limousines, police motorcycles, and armored vans, the metal detectors
at hotel ballroom doors, the young security men and women with earpieces.
We Washingtonians have come to love our provincialism, though never
for a moment admitting that's what it is. After all, don't we know
all about everything going on everywhere? Well, all right -maybe
just certain kinds of things going on everywhere.
A new administration washes over us for a while, defines
a mood for a while. We are willing to try on a new hat, play dress
up in different clothes. But deep down we are united by the comfort
of knowing that Washington is a special place to live. It is special
of course, because it is our nation's capital, but also because
it has all those imposing buildings, and because it is high school.
And in high school, one never stops learning.