Is Washington Washed Up?

David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of the forthcoming book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (click hereto buy it). Michael Elliott is the editor of Newsweek International.This week they debate whether Washington, D.C., has lost its vitality. 

David’s right, of course, that there is an important place for public service in our society, and that plenty of those who have gotten rich in the new economy will discover that truth. He’s right, too, in saying that the tides of history sweep on, and that sooner or later a crisis will present itself that requires an active, dynamic government. But I think that these two points have very different implication for the “waning of Washington” thesis.

In the second case—most obviously a war or some other geopolitical catastrophe—of course “Washington” would come into its own. We have not privatized the national-security function and are unlikely ever to do so. But the argument from the necessity for public service is another matter. There is no reason in principle, and less than a reason in practice, why those motivated by public service should have their eyes fixed on opportunities in Washington. The United States is a great country that spans a continent. In many, many areas—education, health, transportation, culture, economic development, crime prevention—the natural forum for governmental action will be at the state or (especially) local level. Or, for that matter, through private philanthropy, which, as it happens, is precisely the route taken by many of those who have gotten rich in the last 10 years. The charitable and nonprofit sector is going through a once-in-a-century burst of growth whose impact will be felt for decades. None of that has anything to do with Washington—save for the obvious truth that plenty of those who have made millions from AOL live in the Virginia suburbs.

I think, incidentally (this is what they used to call a lousy link-up), that it’s time this “Dialogue” got onto AOL. “Old” Washington—old white Washington, at least—was centered on government; or on quasi-governmental agencies like the World Bank, which American inhabitants of Washington hardly notice but which looms large in the mental map of the city for non-Americans. (You’d be amazed how good World Bank parties can be.) “New” Washington is quite different. For a start, its center of gravity has shifted, from Northwest and the Maryland suburbs to Northern Virginia. Nothing particularly wrong with that, of course, save that a consequence of the shift has been to wreck that gorgeous countryside that used to be one of the delights of living in the city—when I first visited Washington, more than 20 years ago, you hardly saw a building between Dulles and Georgetown. And I’m the last person to look down his nose at new money—hey, I’d like a bit of it myself. But I can’t help feeling that Washington will lose something in the transition.

One of the things that used to make the city such a delight to live in, I always thought, was its compact nature. You could get from any Point A to any Point B in 20 minutes. (In New York, it takes an hour; in London, even longer.) That—again, I’m talking about white Washington, and I know that’s not even half the story—bred a certain sense of shared experience (I’m trying to avoid the word “community”) that made living there wonderfully enjoyable. But Washington now risks becoming just another city, where the real economic action is not downtown and where the suburbs have the same meandering streets, SUVs, and soccer fields as anywhere else. Now—let me stipulate that I like all of that stuff, especially the soccer fields. But the more Washington is defined by its suburbs, the less it is a special place. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.