The Breakfast Table

Toxic City

Dear Erik,

First of all, let me say that your novel, Face-Time is completely brilliant. While there are those who will insist that it is a novel about a president having an affair, and particularly this president (how’s that for getting the reader’s attention?) the fact is that it has nothing to do with Bill Clinton and relatively little to do with someone having an affair. It is really one of the best studies of power I have ever read. It’s an essay, actually about how people respond to the close proximity to power, how it influences them, how it affects them emotionally, psychologically, morally. Now I’m making it sound much too erudite when what I really want to say is that the sex is great!

You’ve brought up some interesting questions in your letter but let me answer the one about whether people in Georgetown living rooms talk of anything other than impeachment these days. For one thing, as you well know, Erik, Georgetown is a metaphor. There are a lot of people who live in Washington and have interesting conversations who don’t live in Georgetown. Actually Bob Woodward once quoted Hillary Clinton talking about how the Washington Post was against anyone who didn’t live in Georgetown when in fact neither the publisher nor the top 10 editors lived in Georgetown. I think what she was talking about was the Washington establishment, most of whom do not live in Georgetown either. (I happen to live there but most of my friends don’t.) By the Washington establishment I mean those people who either work for the government, the media, the legal establishment, the diplomatic corps, the Senate, Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, or who have lived here and worked for those institutions in other administrations. So. You want to know if the Washington establishment is talking about the impeachment?

Well, it’s interesting you should ask. The answer is yes. People are still talking about it. The Senate trial is starting this week so it’s pretty hard to ignore. However the tone of the conversation is totally different from what it was before Christmas. During and immediately after the whole impeachment thing in the House, Washington was toxic. It was as though Saddam Hussein had dropped a canister of Sarin nerve gas on the city. The atmosphere did, as you suggest, resemble the Civil War with brother turned against brother. (You also mention the Bennett boys. I don’t think, by the way, that they are as far apart on this issue as one might surmise.) Friendships were rent asunder. There were potential dinner guests whose very presence was guaranteed to provoke tongue-tied embarrassment.

People wouldn’t go out to dinner unless they had vetted the guest list beforehand to make sure everyone was compatible. Nobody would go anywhere that wasn’t known as a “safe house” and I don’t mean that in the John Le Carré sense. You just didn’t want to go somewhere where you were going to get screamed at for whatever position you might take on the subject. Tempers flared, emotions ran high, the anxiety was palpable. Some people even got physically sick, literally nauseated by the entire process and spectacle. I have never known the atmosphere to be as intense as it was.

But then the president was impeached, Christmas was upon us and a lot of the players left town. Now it’s a new year, everyone’s back, the trial is about to start and everything has changed. It’s not the same city. Why? I’ve got to run now but we’ll talk about it at breakfast tomorrow!

By the way, did I tell you how great your book was?