Despite its faux-Roman buildings, Washington has never seemed an imperial city to me, even now when America is a truly hegemonic country, not seriously threatened by any other great power. Spending the weekend here during what all the endless commentators call a momentous occasion–the House Judiciary Committee’s vote to send articles of impeachment to the House–is nonetheless for a New Yorker like me a weekend in the Country. Georgetown, where I am staying, is quiet, rural (if you stay away from Wisconsin Avenue) and, even with its great houses, quaint. New York, on the other hand, is glittering, in the best shape I have known it to be in since I first arrived there that hot summer of 1956 to seek my fortune. I had just returned from Paris, where I had spent three years, first in a fellowship to study Baudelaire and Delacroix and then as an American soldier attached to the French army. With discharge papers in my pocket and severance pay to get me through the next three months, I wandered the streets looking for a job as a “writer,” though I had no idea what this meant or how to go about it. The weeks passed effortlessly: There were swing dance parities given by former classmates from college, evenings listening to Mabel Mercer at the Ruban Bleu, and a brief love affair in Greenwich Village filled with misunderstandings but no heartbreak–or so I choose to believe.
At a dinner party in Georgetown (“quintessential” probably best describes it). There is little or no talk of the impeachment proceedings. Hosted by an adviser to the State Department, the guests include a European ambassador, a former American ambassador, and a mid-level foreign service officer. Everyone assumes the Clinton presidency has run its course, and there is much discussion about Bill and Hillary’s future plans. Will the former president, who will not be driven from office, end up in Malibu heading a think tank financed by the Spielberg and Streisand foundations? Will his wife run for public office from Illinois or New York, or maybe California? Everyone agrees that by speaking out on women’s issues she has become a kind of Eleanor Roosevelt, and like Mrs. R., she has endured.
The evening is suffused with nostalgia for an earlier age. After paying homage to the world of Marshall, Acheson, and Truman, the conversation centered on Gen. de Gaulle. How did this extraordinary figure, who was able to annihilate his personal self into an identification with France, come to incarnate the nation as much as did Joan of Arc? Never was France more respected than in the early 1960s, when de Gaulle made peace in Algeria, gave independence to the French African colonies, and pushed through a strong constitution. Shorn of it colonial possessions and freed from debilitating wars, France gained credibility among nations. Unfortunately, too often it is believed that credibility will be lost if a nation abandons a commitment. But if the commitment was folly to begin with, as was the American commitment to preserve a South Vietnamese government from a communist takeover, the nation loses credibility. France only became credible after de Gaulle had liquidated the Algerian war.
Unfortunately, de Gaulle’s ending was unworthy of his achievements. Two of the dinner guests had been in Paris during the events of May 1968, when students brought the countryside to the brink of civil war. De Gaulle had lost touch with this people; prosperity, it turned out, was not enough: France was bored, the young wanted to overturn the old order, and to a remarkable degree they succeeded. The general made a brief recovery to quell the insurrection but, not long after, returned to the melancholy isolation of his home in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises in Lorraine, where I had served so happily in the army a decade before de Gaulle expelled all our soldiers from the country.