(First Edition, 1996)
by Theodore Fischer
A Balliett & Fitzgerald Book/Macmillan USA
"A wickedly honest guide for sophisticated travelers and those who want to be"
There's nothing new about irreverent views of Washington—they've been coming steadily since before day one. An early surveyor, Major Andrew Ellicott, said "this country intended for the Permanent Residence of the Congress, bears no more proportion to the country about Philadelphia...for either wealth or fertility than a crane does to a stall-fed ox." Thomas Jefferson called it "that Indian swamp in the wilderness," a slur that stuck although it's really a Potomac River flood plain. Dickens dubbed Washington "head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva," and Civil War era visitor G.A. Sala called it "a vast practical joke...the most 'bogus' of towns-a shin-plaster in brick and mortar with a delusive frontispiece of marble."
Washington Confidential by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, a guidebook-cum-exposé that came out in 1951, called Washington "a made-to-order architectural paradise with the political status of an Indian reservation, inhabited by 800,000 economic parasites; no industries but one, government, and the tradesmen and servants and loafers and scum that feed on the highest average per capita income in the world, where exist the soundest security, the mightiest power, and the most superlative rates of crime, vice and juvenile delinquency anywhere." (Things are much different now; there are only about 600,000 parasites).
Poet Dylan Thomas' enigmatically remarked, "Washington isn't a city, it's an abstraction." But JFK's famous put-down—"A city of southern efficiency and northern charm"—was downright inspirational. You could go in that vein forever: a city of Republican compassion and Democratic frugality, of yuppie spontaneity and redneck subtlety, of bureaucratic ingenuity and entrepreneurial conscience, of gay decorum and fundamentalist irony, of liberal piety and conservative angst, Eastern Seaboard egalitarianism and Middle American chic...you get the idea.
Suffice it to say that Washington is a special place, both in the dictionary sense of "unusual" and "extraordinary," and in the Church Lady sense of "Isn't that special." The U.S. Constitution ordained it perpetually special when it ordered Congress to establish and "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over a "seat of the Government of the United States."
This squishy lowland at the convergence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers became the capital as the result of the kind of insider horse-trading would soon the Washington way of life. Two pre-Beltway sharpies, New Yorker Alexander Hamilton and Virginian Thomas Jefferson, brokered the deal. They convinced the South to finally pay off the soldiers who won the Revolutionary War, in return for which they promised that the capital would not be one of the big cities of the North—New York, Philadelphia, or (God forbid!) Boston.
The first European visitor to the neutral site, which President Washington himself chose for the capital in 1789, was supposedly Captain John Smith (otherwise known as the male lead in Disney's Pocahontas). The District of Columbia was originally a ten-mile-square diamond straddling the Potomac, the unofficial border of North and South; it encompassed 69 square miles of Maryland and 31 square miles Virginia. (The Virginia section was retroceded back to the state in 1846.) D.C. originally encompassed Washington City, the thriving river towns of George Town, Maryland, (later Georgetown) and Alexandria, Virginia and a few other villages. Nowadays, the District of Columbia and the Washington City are one and the same.
An imperious Frenchman named Pierre l'Enfant ("Langfang" in the local argot) was hired to plan the new capital. L'Enfant didn't last long—he was history by 1792—but his plan to overlay an orderly American-style street grid with the verdant roundabouts and broad boulevards of Paris was eventually carried out. City-planning-wise, the other major contribution came in the early 20th century from the Senate's McMillan Commission, which amplified l'Enfant plan with the National Mall, showplace site of the major monuments and museums.
The city of Washington has always had a stormy relationship with its Congressional masters. Citizens of Washington have no representation in the Congress, which makes them frequently yell "Taxation Without Representation" launch noisy campaigns for D.C. statehood. D.C. had home rule, with an elected mayor and council, from 1802 until a Presidential Commission decided to take over in 1874. A Constitutional amendment granted Washingtonians the right to vote for President in 1961; full home rule, with an elected mayor and city council, was restored in 1975, though the arrangement is pretty unwieldy—Congress still has the right approve the entire city budget.
Home Rule II has been a mixed blessing, partly due to the inherent unworkability of the arrangement (Congress must approve the entire city budge) and partly due the character of elected home rulers. Mayor Marion S. Barry was elected to his fourth four-year term in 1994 even though following his third term he served time in a federal prison, after being found guilty for drug possession. During Barry's absence, city council president John Wilson committed suicide for reasons unknown. By 1995, D.C. had become such a municipal basket case—bloated payrolls, invisible services, ridiculous schools—that Congress appointed a financial control board to run its affairs. For the foreseeable future, a mostly black overwhelmingly Democratic city will be totally in thrall to appointees of a mostly white majority Republican Congress they had no voice in electing. Lousy governance, but great political theater.
But the City of Washington itself is just the hub to a metropolitan area of nearly 4 million, the eighth largest population cluster in the U.S. It sprawls across Virginia and Maryland suburbs and exurbs and sends commuter tentacles as far as West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. The people of the Washington area are 95 percent the same as everybody else—but it's that other five percent that makes them a bizarre race unto themselves.
For on thing, Washingtonians (which we'll call everyone who lives in the capital—they're not really capitalists) are pretty damn affluent. The metro area's average annual salary is nearly $33,000, ranking it 10th among 284 U.S. metropolitan statistic areas. The Washington area ranks first in percentage of families with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, and fourth in the $150,000+ class.
Washington is a city of paper pushers (okay, computer inputters now). It produces hardly anything except laws, policy, and opinions. Washington has 15,000 lobbyists and only 5,000 journalists to keep an eye on them; it also has 56 lawyers for every 1,000 residents, compared to a mere 8 per 1,000 in New York City.
If you live around Washington you work for the federal government or for a private business whose existence depends directly on federal government business. Or your spouse does. Or your children or close relatives do. Or your best friend or neighbors do. Or your customers do. Where other Americans see waste, fraud, and graft, Washingtonians see money in their own pockets or in those of someone near and dear. When Washingtonians hear loudmouth politicians trash some federal program as a criminal waste of almighty taxpayer dollars, they wonder if the agency is still hiring or taking bids.
Washingtonians are smart enough to not to flaunt this minority view in mixed company (i.e., among outside-the-Beltway aliens). Time is on their side—they know they'll survive this gang of government bashers just like of all the others. But be forewarned that ad hominem attacks on "bureaucrats" and "tax-and-spend policies" and "big government" won't go down very well. Let loose with such sentiments around here and you're likely to get a pretty icy response.
Washington also seems more racially heterogeneous than a lot of other places. This is partly a federal thing: since the feds have pushed nondiscriminatory hiring, minorities permeate the government and occupy positions of authority. Private enterprise follows suit. But it's also a District thing. Since the city is about 70 percent black, the "minority" maintains undisputed control of the government now and for the imaginable future. Blacks don't feel threatened here. The races for the most part don't live together, but they work together and to some extent play together and in general seem fairly comfortable with each another. Pretty much same holds true for Washington's large and conspicuous gay/lesbian community; best to leave remarks about Biblical abominations against nature out there in the boondocks.
Tolerance extends across political party lines, too. Washingtonians know better than to mouth off about politics until they know where their listener stands. This helps people of different parties co-exist, but it does lend a don't-ask-don't-tell blandness to human interaction around here.
Washingtonians can afford to be tolerant because, down deep, they know how good they've got it. There are definitely perks to living in this "special" city. Congress might fiddle while the District goes down the tubes, but it will never allow the Nation's Capital part of town to degenerate—congresspeople need a place they can show off to constituents. Washingtonians have access to some of the world's greatest museums—free access, I might add, so they can afford to pop in for a minute to check out a single exhibit or maybe a single work of art. Riding the partially federally funded Metrorail system is one of Washington's great pleasures. The American taxpayer also picks up the tab for Washington's parks; and the federal security forces that supplement the budget-busted woebegone D.C. Police. (And don't think we're not grateful. As a Washingtonian, I want to personally thank all you Americans for your generous tax support.)
But although almost everyone who lives here comes from someplace else—another state, or another country—you can hardly say that Washington is cosmopolitan. Except for the Hispanic neighborhoods around Adams-Morgan and a few Asian enclaves in the suburbs, there are no neighborhoods lined with intriguing shops, no charming offbeat restaurants that have been there forever. Beyond the Mall—which Washington Confidential likened to the white marble mausoleums of a well-kept cemetery—you might expect to find a vibrant sophisticated cosmopolitan city. Forget it. Washington is not a Great City like New York or Paris. It has no high-profile charisma. Washington is an Important City à la Brussels and Zurich, a lackluster place where people take care of weighty business.
Yes, Washington is a special place, and yes, it's fun to visit. You come here to walk in the footsteps of history (corny as it sounds), to behold soul-stirring monuments, to observe close-hand the workings of government, visit august museums of art and the sciences.
But if it's urban electricity you're after, you'd be better off in Cleveland.