Why Washington Is Different
You out there hate Flytrap. We in here love it. So what’s wrong with us?
For months, it has been an article of faith among Washingtonians that the rest of you would catch up to our Flytrap outrage. The combined intellectual might of Washington’s “opinion elite”–a phrase used only by those who think they belong to it–would eventually rouse the slack-jawed, slow-witted masses in flyover country from their moral slumber.
But since the broadcast of the president’s testimony, it has become glaringly obvious (and a poll-tested certainty) that the great unwashed aren’t “catching up” to anything. So it’s time for us Washingtonians to stop asking, “What’s their problem?” and to start asking, “What’s ours?”
(“Washington” is, of course, shorthand. I use it to refer to the politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, and journalists who polish D.C.’s conventional wisdom to a high gloss. “Washington” does not refer to most of the people who actually live here.)
Everyone in Washington has a theory about why we are frothing about a scandal that no one else much cares about. I have counted at least 20 of them, speculation about everything from Washington’s innate prudery to its unconscious desire for parliamentary government. Most of the theories, or at least most of the convincing ones, fall into one of five categories, presented here in ascending order of relevance.
Law: In a recent National Journal article, Jonathan Rauch makes the case that Washington’s Flytrap rage partly stems from our legal culture. The majority of D.C.’s opinion elite, I would bet, holds law degrees, and legalism is the city’s lingua franca. This makes D.C. especially susceptible to Flytrap, because the scandal looks worse to lawyers than to anyone. Clinton lied under oath: In legalistic D.C., that is more than enough cause to damn him. The rest of the country, which doesn’t share our legal fixation, has the good sense to recognize that some kinds of lies (even under oath) are more innocent than others.
Moral One-Upmanship: In its soul, Washington is no more upset about adultery and fooling around with interns than the rest of the country is. But we are extremely sensitive to charges of moral laxity: We’re terrified of being depicted as licentious, godless hedonists who tolerate a Caligula. So we fake outrage, certifying our moral credentials by acting holier than thou. Thou, by contrast, is tolerant of human frailty and doesn’t share our need to moralize endlessly.
Geography: Or, rather, proximity. It breeds contempt. This category has three distinct strains.
a) Washington is more disgusted with Clinton because it is more familiar with him. We’ve had six years to observe his slipperiness and mendacity up close, and that’s made us especially cynical about him. We have seen him make FBI files appear and Rose Law Firm files disappear, rent out the Lincoln bedroom, and schmooze Chinese arms dealers. Monica is merely the last straw. Likewise, we have followed Flytrap more closely than the rest of the country, and it looks worse up close than from afar. (At the last three dinner parties I attended, the scandal was the only topic of conversation. Some friends of mine who visit the outside world assure me that there are parts of America where people don’t talk about Flytrap all the time. I, too, found this awfully hard to believe.) At a distance, the Clinton of Flytrap is an everyday sinner. But at a pore’s-eye view, with six years of his lies fresh in your memory, he seems pathologically manipulative, deceptive, and sex-crazed. The more we learned about Flytrap–cigars, phone calls, etc.–the worse he seemed. (Interestingly, this intimacy is now beginning to benefit Clinton. Starr’s supporting documents, which only the opinion elite has the interest to read, depict Clinton as less monstrous than previous reports. Elite opinion is correspondingly softening.)
b) Elite Washington, by virtue of proximity to Clinton, takes Flytrap personally in ways the rest of the country doesn’t. The opinion elite knows Clinton, and is friends with Clinton’s aides. When a president lies on televison, it’s the daily business of politics. But when an acquaintance lies directly to you or to your friend, it’s an insult. Outside the Beltway, no one knows who John Podesta is or cares that Clinton lied to him. But in Washington, Clinton’s lies to aides were a slap, a betrayal of one of us. Washington is a victim of its emotions. It’s incapable of setting aside its visceral fury at Clinton’s misbehavior and developing a rational response. But 260 million Americans don’t care about any of the betrayed aides and so don’t have an emotional response. They shrug and make their calculations.
c) The “Washington establishment,” a subset of “Washington,” has its own special proximity hatred of Clinton. The establishment, epitomized by Sally Quinn, has been scorned by the Clintons since 1993. As Jacob Weisberg argued in a pre-Flytrap Slate column, the slighted establishment has become implacable in its Clinton hatred. The gist of its detestation is: If you’re not going to suck up to us, get back to Arkansas where you belong, you pervert.
Economics: Flytrap serves Washington’s economic self-interest. As Watergate made the careers of scores of pols and journalists, so investigative reporters (Michael Isikoff), editorial writers (Howell Raines), pundits (you name ‘em), and politicians (any Republican on the House Judiciary Committee) have hitched their wagons to Flytrap. The bigger the story is, the more business we have: the more newspapers read, the more MSNBC watched, the more obscure members of Congress booked on Larry King Live. Hence, we have every incentive to keep the tar boiling. As long as you keep demanding scandal–and you do, despite your protestations–we’ll keep supplying it. And besides, we can’t back out now. How silly would it look for reporters and indignant politicians to suddenly announce, “Oh, you’re right. We did waste eight months. Whoops.”
(Flytrap is not only a usefully big story. It is also a usefully simple one, as Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly points out. It doesn’t require the opinion elite to master a dull-but-worthy subject like Medicare or banking reform.)
Sociology: The least appreciated reason for D.C.’s Clinton mania is the city’s peculiar social organization. Nicholas Lemann, who’s writing a book on elites, argues that Washington in the ‘90s is America in the ‘50s. The rest of the nation has become entrepreneurial and individualistic, but Washington, says Lemann, is still home to the organization man. In D.C., we work for big institutions, believe in them, and expect wisdom from the smart, honorable people who rise to the top of them. Ambitious Washingtonians, who have sacrificed wealth to work here, are heavily invested in the idea that government is magnificent and honorable and that it should be run by a president who is respected and beloved by the nation. (This sociological explanation runs counter to “Moral One-Upmanship,” above, because it holds that Washingtonians really are more outraged than everyone else, and aren’t just faking it.)
(Similarly, Washingtonians attach far more importance to the mentor-protégé relationship than the rest of the country does. We glom on to a great man and rise with him. Unlike in other places, where people can measure success by how much they earn, we measure success in Washington by the power and respect our great man is accorded. If the great man betrays us or makes us look like a fool–as Clinton has done with Podesta, et al.–he breaks one of Washington’s most sacred trusts.)
By Washington’s standard, then, Clinton’s greatest crime is not that he lied or leched. It is that he shamed our institution. If government and the presidency are embarrassed, then we are diminished. Our self-worth depends on the worth of our institution.
Most Americans, fortunately, couldn’t care less. They are too busy getting and spending for themselves to worry much about the respectability of Clinton and the strength of his organization. It’s not their institution that’s being disgraced. It’s not their loyalty that’s being tested. It’s not their problem.
Slate’s Complete Flytrap Coverage